I was immensely flattered to be contacted by Una Harrington to share some thoughts about my journey in wellness as an Intensive Care Trainee, Dancer and Creative Lead of the Social Media and Critical Care (SMACC) conference. As with many things in my life memorable experiences happen mostly by accident and my foray into the world of performing arts was certainly one of them. I don’t think I have any particularly wise words to share, only the lessons I’ve learnt along the way since I first started performing and the things I value most to steady myself as I navigate a career and life that frequently demands more than you feel you have to give.
Lesson 1: Try again till you can do no more, then try again
In ballet, the word “ballon” describes the ability to appear suspended whilst in motion. This sense of weightlessness is a distinct quality dancers value greatly. The ability to make that which is difficult appear easy is the classical dancer’s perpetual mission. As a late starter to dance I was initially quite taken aback by the intensity ballet training required. Extreme focus and time are spent on each muscle to contort it into unnatural planes and shapes, each limb is placed, each movement scrutinised: the tilt of the head, the placement of each finger, the line of the eyes. The road to perfection is unending and to get there requires immeasurable hours of hard work.
There’s a pervasive sentiment these days about only doing things that give you joy. I feel that it stops some of us from pursuing worthwhile endeavours due to the effort required. Within reason, suffering for your art is inevitable. Ballerinas can spend up to 10 hours a day dancing on their toes to create the illusion of floating on air. The ability to display grace despite pain and discomfort is perhaps masochistic, but we do this every day in our jobs.
David Goggins is a retired Navy Seal and the 2013 world record holder for most pull ups performed in 24 hours (4030 pullups!). Described as the “toughest man alive” Goggins talks about the 40% principle: the idea that when we think we’ve reached our limit we’re only 40% there. The amount of investment required to care for our patients – doing specialty exams, keeping our knowledge up to date and hone our skills – requires discipline, dedication and a heaping dose of discomfort. Medicine attracts Type A personalities for a reason. We keep coming back because we love it too much: in the discomfort we find growth; in this we find our reward. We are more than we think we are, always. The harder part though is knowing when to stop and take stock (refer to: Lesson 3).
Lesson 2: Feed your body and rest your weary head (and dance every day)
Some lessons learnt do not become meaningful until you’re much older. I remember in school the amount of food we had to prepare on performance days: Tupperware full of chicken salad, tubs of yogurt, bananas and a handful of nuts were often found in our lunch bags. On our competition trips we all brought pillows and a common sight was a floor full of dancers taking naps before the show begins. On top of the amount of time devoted to performing we were taught the very basic requirement for a fulfilling life: the importance of eating well, rest and exercise. At the time though this all felt unnecessary and excessive and seemed like the normal adult approach of taking fun out of everything.
Starting university, all these lessons became unlearnt. Sleep was haphazard, exercise sporadic, instant noodles and pizza became familiar friends. In time this took its toll and as I got older, I felt more tired, gained a bunch of weight, and felt a restlessness I couldn’t quite explain.
Earlier this year, in preparation for my performance at SMACC, I hired a personal trainer who re-taught me the importance of nutrition, rest and exercise. Working on this has been the single biggest contributor to improving my wellbeing and mental health. As a shift worker our food habits can be terrible – being on shift would often mean a whole week of eating junk food at ungodly hours. Since working with my trainer, I only eat food I bring from home and avoid snacking at work (with some exceptions). I also track my daily caloric intake and macros to ensure adequate nutrition since I am also weightlifting four days a week as part of cross training for dance. Getting enough sleep is a work in progress though: now that my training sessions are scheduled at early dawn, I am forced to get to bed early. Eat well, sleep well and exercise. Start with this and the rest will follow.
Lesson 3: When in doubt find your centre, when lost find your way home
The “center” is in reference to the core in which dancers rely on heavily as a means of balance during a pirouette or jump. The center provides stability and strength when in motion, and dancers know this as a fact: when you lose your center, you fall.
Being an intensive care doctor and bearing witness to the absolute highs and lows of the human condition is an immense privilege. I thoroughly enjoy the cerebral aspect of the work as well the tangible “get your hands dirty” nature of caring for the gravely ill. In the early years of my training there wasn’t much that fazed me and in my youthful ignorance, I thought I was invincible. My first week in PICU presented a series of unfortunate events. It is perhaps one of the few moments in my training where I felt unprepared and unequipped. Those bedside teaching sessions on troubleshooting blocked traches and misbehaving balloon pumps did not teach me how to deal with human suffering. How do I react to traumatic deaths when children are the victims? How do I console a father crying for his dead son? How do I swallow down despair when it threatens to unravel from that place we keep hidden? Again, and again, death upon death upon death: unexpected, untimely and undeserved. During my time in PICU, dance was a stranger. I thought time was too precious to be spent doing such frivolous things. I soon lost myself and each way I looked all I could see were cloudy skies without rain.
The co-founder of SMACC Roger Harris once said that to do the job well we need to balance everything we see with all the beauty in the world. In the many years I have performed I have come to find great beauty in music and movement. The closest I’ve been to experiencing absolute stillness is in the moments when I’m on stage enraptured and lost in the vastness of space or when I’m sitting in front of the piano stumbling over the keys, black notes guiding my fingers and my voice. If home is where one finds safety and comfort, then in those moments I’m there: joyful and whole. I believe that we all have some things which keep us intact: family, surfing, whatever it may be. This job has a way of pulling focus from all that life has to offer and quite often we find ourselves eclipsed in its shadow.
Finishing my PICU term brought with it another change. I moved to Lismore for six months and got to experience living in a beautiful part of Australia. A more forgiving roster meant time to exercise and seeking a new challenge, I found myself a cello teacher and embraced the feeling of being unskilled, to stumble and learn without fear or expectations. In time I found myself again, and funnily enough it was there all along: my center – patient, steadfast and dependable.
An important lesson dance has thought me is this: when in motion trust your center, it will stop you from falling. And find those things that are beautiful, nurture them till they bloom and make them your anchor so you may reach for them even with your eyes closed or when the world is falling apart around you.
Lesson 4: Reverence (from Latin reverentia, from revereri ‘stand in awe of’)
My favourite part of ballet comes at the end of a class; Reverence is a series of exercises performed and completed with a bow or curtsy to the teacher and pianist. It is a simple and elegant way of saying thank you for the time the teacher has devoted to your growth and a fanciful sign of respect and appreciation.
We are blessed to do what we do; I know I often forget this. Medicine demands great sacrifice but in return the rewards are endless. Navigating this road is often disorienting and some moments will cause such despair you feel lost and the way forward seems to only lead you back. Despite this there is so much in our jobs to be thankful for and each day I stand in awe of how lucky I am to be doing this.
The ritual of ballet has reverence each and every time, one is not allowed to forget. In saying thank you we acknowledge the value others have in enriching our lives and at the end of the day dance taught me the simplest most elegant gift of all: gratitude.
Links of interest:
This post is inspired by Oli Flower’s great talk: Lesson’s from the Cage presented at SMACC Chicago.