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May 24
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Anyone Can Be Our Teacher

Finding joy and compassion for others in a time of personal suffering

by Karen Lundy, with an Introduction by Shastri Christine Heming

hospital-921034__340Introduction: In a recent article for the Times (Think About It; Beliefs Matter) I wrote about Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell – a book about how ordinary people respond to disasters by pulling together, finding community and compassion, and even experiencing joy in those times of total upheaval.  Karen’s story is about personal upheaval, and when she told me about this experience I thought it clearly showed how we can find Solnit’s paradise in the disasters of our own lives.  We can connect with the suffering and pain of others, and in doing so, find solace, compassion and community.  I encouraged Karen to share this story with the Times.

Karen’s Story:

I had been in my room for about five hours when I heard a woman’s voice calling out repeatedly from down the hospital corridor. One word I couldn’t make out. But she was loud.

doctor-840127__340I was in isolation after taking a radioactive iodine treatment that was to purge my body of any remaining thyroid cancer cells after my surgery four months earlier. Leading in, I had been on an extremely limited and boring diet. The two meals I’d had so far at the hospital were just an extension of the same: bland and almost unpalatable. In two to three days I would be allowed to get back to a normal diet.

I came prepared for isolation: books, Kindle e-reader, paper to write letters, Samsung tablet to watch Netflix at night, a bag of raisins (one of a few snacks allowed). Now a patient down the hall was making my stay worse.

A nurse finally went in to her, and she quieted down for a couple of hours. Then it started again, until a nurse came with her next dose of whatever medication she was taking. It’s hard enough to be in hospital. Harder still to be isolated.  I resented that she was making my ordeal more difficult.

hospital-736568__340About ten o’clock, as I was watching the end of a movie, she called out once more. Here we go again, I thought. Soon, I heard a nurse speaking to her, and again she quieted down. I put my tablet away, got ready for bed, and called my husband. For the duration of my stay of two to three days, he could only visit for a total of twenty minutes. He had to stand down the corridor while I stood in the doorway of my room. Earlier, I’d heard an ambulatory patient ask a nurse why there was a barrier in front of my room and why there were warnings posted about radioactivity hazards. The nurse said something or other, and I felt like a pariah, as if I had leprosy, an untouchable.

I didn’t sleep well. In the morning, I was suffering from nausea that increased significantly if I got up and moved around. They put me on Gravol. I was not to vomit into a toilet or sink but into a wastebasket. My vomit was a biohazard. I pretty much skipped breakfast — only drinking some of my tea. Then I lay down on my bed for a long day.

stethoscope-840125__340The woman down the hall started calling out again. Still loud, but I now could make out that she was shouting ‘hello.’ Why was she doing that? And then it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard her once in the night. Soon I heard a nurse in her room speaking gently to her. There was no impatience in the nurse’s voice, just kindness. That struck me. I was alone except for a nurse rushing in at eight to quickly take my vitals. No one was going to come into my room and offer kind soothing words. What a crappy position to be in. Was I jealous?

Since I could do little more than lie down, I found myself listening for the woman to call out again. She did, every couple of hours or so. I thought:  Couldn’t she just press the button to summon the nurse? Maybe not. So why not? And why was her voice so garbled?  Then it occurred to me that I was on the cancer ward. If this woman couldn’t speak properly or ring her buzzer, what condition was she in? It began to dawn on me that she might be in very serious condition indeed.

heart-665184__340I took stock of my own situation. I was able to get up and walk about, eat if my nausea passed. I had entertainment. I’d be out tomorrow or the next day. Why was I feeling so sorry for myself?  I heard nurses go to this woman off and on all day.  I listened to their kind tone, and was glad this woman had good people taking care of her. But it made me feel lonely and sad. I’d have gone to the door of her room if I could, just to see her.  I longed to see her, to share our mutual situation.

By mid-afternoon I was still pretty nauseous. My arms ached from trying to hold my tablet, e-reader or book above my head. Drinking a ton of water to flush the radioactivity out of my body had me going to the washroom every half hour. When the woman called out, I hoped someone would go to her quickly. I could feel her loneliness, her helplessness. As I let that sink in, I turned on my side and cried. My situation was not as dire as hers, but it was my situation. No matter that she might suffer more; it didn’t make my suffering non-existent. I was suffering.  I was lonely.  These were natural feelings.  Silently, I too was calling out for sympathy, for kindness.

banner-918218__340I felt a kinship with this stranger down the hall and a sudden gratitude to her for helping me with this insight. I began to send healing thoughts to her.

I passed another restless night, but my fellow patient didn’t disturb me. In fact, I listened for her; I invited her in.  After breakfast, I heard a nurse in her room talking encouragingly. She was getting out of bed! I listened for a while. Then I heard the nurse ask if she would like to keep walking or go back to bed. I didn’t hear the reply but I heard the nurse say, “Then we’ll keep going.” I felt joyful at the woman’s courage and determination. She was up and moving about!

towel-759980__340I found out around noon that I would be released from hospital that day. I was still somewhat radioactive and would have to keep my distance from others for a couple of days. Well, I could manage that just fine.

I packed up. As I was leaving, I walked past the woman’s room. I wished I could go in. Wished I could thank her for the gift she had given me, share my story with her.  I will never know what she looks like or what her name is but I will never forget her, or how she unknowingly helped a stranger get through a difficult time.

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6 responses to “ Anyone Can Be Our Teacher ”
  1. Karen Lundy
    Jun 9, 2016

    Thank you, Curtis, for your insightful comment.

  2. Curtis Steele
    Jun 3, 2016

    Lovely sharing of your process. Each of us is a version of solidified space. Thank you Karen!

  3. Karen Lundy
    May 28, 2016

    Thank you, Marie, for your kind response..

  4. Karen Lundy
    May 28, 2016

    Thank you, Debbie. This event will stay with me and I’m so glad I was encouraged to submit it.

  5. Marie O'Brien
    May 27, 2016

    A great wake up lesson. Your story brought me to tears. Thanks you so much Karen.

  6. Debbie McGee
    May 25, 2016

    This is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it, Karen.

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