5 Exercises in Humility

Humility comes from the Latin humus, which means earth, or ground. The earth, which is trampled upon, left in the heat of the sun, and dumped with garbage is also that which everything will fall to. As I continue my study of medicine, I realize that the more I know, the more I know nothing. Here is a list of exercises in humility that I’ve experienced so far.

1. Almost Drowning

favim.com

When you’re a teenager, you feel that you are one of the most powerful beings in the world. I guess it’s due to our prefrontal cortexes being immature. Though we have a biological excuse, it’s never enough of an excuse to do stupid things. Which is why I found myself in that precarious situation a few summers ago. I was at the beach with my family then, and the time was when the sun was beginning to set. I thought it would be fun to swim far from the shore, and being full of bravado, I swam towards the sunset.

I don’t know how long I swam, but when I turned my head to get back, the shore was but a small image – I could cover it with my hand. It was then that I realized the stupidity of my decision – I furiously swam to the shore, against the waves. Every three meters I swum, the waves would pull me two meters back; it was a fight of attrition. I remember the fear of death gripping me. I had seen it in the movies, but it was real that time. I remember being blinded by my tears and saltwater alike. Halfway through, my right leg had a cramp, but I was not one to complain in such a situation.

When I got to the shore, I was beat up. I laid on the sand, gasping for breath, and never again did I wish to test myself against a unconquerable force.

2.Meeting one who has dreams, yet cannot have them.

visionpetron.com

I once took care of a patient who had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was a year younger than I was. Like me at the time, he was also a student, and an excellent one at that. He also had a beautiful girlfriend, who I had the pleasure of being introduced to. The patient was also part of a band, playing rhythm guitar. He was also an athlete. One day, he noted that he easily became fatigued, and was unable to play sports. He then had difficulty of breathing, due to the mass growing in his chest cavity. He stopped schooling due to his long confinement.

Despite his illness, that patient of mine had plans for the future – he would get well, and then pursue his field. Life was sure to follow. When we discharged him, I remember a fighter. Though bald due to chemotherapy, he had a bright grin on his face, and had rosy cheeks. No one would suspect that he had cancer.

A year later, I returned to that same ward for another tour of duty. I saw that same patient again. He recognized me, and we briefly caught up on our lives. His cancer went into remission, and he was hospitalized again. Had he not called out for me, I would not have recognized him: he was bald, and had generalized edema (swelling). But his eyes were those of hope and dreams. He was still that fighter I remember.

I finished my tour of duty at the ward and I did not see that patient again. I was informed of a colleague that took care of him that he had passed away at his home after he was discharged.

I felt very bad. I was angry and sad at the same time. The young man did not deserve to pass through this world like a spark in the middle of the night. Yet he who had dreams had them snatched away.

3. Vicarious learning

chubbyfortoolong.blogspot.com

In “The Healing Cut”, a book of anecdotes written by Filipino surgeons, I remember a story about an arrogant orthopedic resident who thought he was better than everyone else. He was a two-faced person, who acted meek and humble when his mentor, the consultant was there and acted otherwise in the mentor’s absence.

One day, he performed an intramedullary nailing (a surgical procedure to set fractured bones straight). As was standard procedure at the time, the scrub nurse asked the resident if an Xray could be done. The resident flew into a rage at being questioned, and berated the nurse, saying: “If the consultant doesn’t need that, why should I?”

An Xray was still done, and the intramedullary rod was found not to be intramedullary, but intramuscular. The resident had a public shaming by his mentor, who stressed that “IM meant intramedullary, and not intramuscular.”

4. Learning that you cannot play God

flickriver.com

This was a story in a past blog post. Death is one of the bitter truths one encounters in the field of healing. Though we try to prolong life, it is sometimes futile, and an honorable death is all that we can provide. Medical professionals, constantly faced with the death of their patients, are ones who see the fragile nature of existence through them.

My favorite motto for the shift was: “Itatawid ko ang pasyente.” (“I’ll see the patient through.”) Not on my watch, I would bright-eyedly say. My ideal. When my professor pointed out to me: “Yes, this is what you want for the patient… but is this what the patient wants?” I thought to myself, what peace can be found in being connected to all sorts of tubes and lines and being unable to move by yourself, a prisoner in your body? What peace is there in being unable to decide for yourself, as you have no way to speak or express your feelings? I realized how Death, though a bitter truth, is the bridge to peace.

I realized that one becomes a true professional when he learns that he cannot do everything.

5. Saying: “I don’t know.”

allisonnazarian.com

I used to be someone who had the answer to everything. Or so I thought. I was once out with my friends for a school event. As the time came to return to our homes, I insisted on a shortcut that led to us being lost. To my friends, and you know who you are, I am very sorry for that. Though we had an “adventure” it was stupid of me to put you in danger.

It was after that incident that I began to say “I don’t know.” I used to think that the phrase meant being defeated by ignorance. No, it is a phrase that admits one is a wise idiot. A wise man speaking aphorisms that make no sense is no better than the fool who keeps mum. The latter may even be better, for one does not know the fool until he speaks.

Knowledge that one does not possess should not be claimed, for it brings about the downfall of a man’s credibility.

They say that “humility is the root of all virtues”. The humble man is an enigma, for he is one who has much, yet without much. The humble man is not one who meekly bends to the winds of change, nor is he the man who unquestioningly obeys the popular view. The concept of the humble man is that which can be likened to the Aristotelean ideal of courage, that is, one who lives within the mean of cowardice and recklessness. The humble man then, is one who lies between being a doormat and being an arrogant git.

As another year comes, (hopefully, if the end of the world doesn’t come and this post is auto-published, as it should be) I look back upon these experiences and realize that I still have a lot to learn. I know not if I am a humble man, but I do know that I am a humbled man with what I have gone through. In the years to come, I hope to be one who has much, yet without much.

P.S. Merry Christmas everyone!

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1 Comment

  1. Daryl

     /  August 10, 2016

    Very well said.

    Reply

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