In 2006, shortly after graduating from optometry school in my hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, my husband (and fellow optometrist) Ryan, and I made the decision to venture west to Alberta to start our careers. Looking back, I can remember how excited we were about the opportunities that existed in this province, and how we happily packed our cars with all our worldly possessions and headed to Edmonton. It was a bold choice for us at the time – we had few family members or friends in the province and we would be starting from nothing (I wish I was exaggerating here!). The combination of our meager student savings combined with the fact that rental availability at that time was incredibly low, meant that we struggled to scrape together enough funds to live in a cheap hotel in downtown Edmonton for a couple of weeks while we searched for a decent place to live. No word of a lie, we literally took our work clothes out of the trunks of our cars to get ready each day!
I can also remember how much we were looking forward to starting our careers in this profession. We couldn’t wait to put our medical knowledge to good use and make a positive difference through providing health care and being a source of information and education. Now, over a decade later, I’ve come to realize that much as I’ve continued to strive to achieve the above, it’s really the patients I’ve worked with and my experiences with them that have given me a world of education. Looking back, here are two of the most important lessons they have taught me.
Much as we’re always aware that we should practice gratitude often and daily, I think we all know how easy it is to fall into the trap of feeling completely weighed down by our problems and difficulties. Once we start comparing ourselves and our lives to the perceived perfection of others, we can start heading in a downward spiral pretty quickly.
I was in the middle of having one such day – I was newly back at work after my second maternity leave and I was starting to feel the heat of having to juggle my parenting responsibilities and work life. That’s when I met Grant, a silver-haired man in his 50s. I had just finished his eye exam and we were exchanging some light conversation as I typed some notes in his file. He asked how my return to work had been, and I decided to be honest.
“A little overwhelming,” I confessed. “I hope I get into the groove sometime soon.”
“I remember those days well” Grant reminisced. “Going to work with screaming kids in the car, running around like a crazy person trying to make everything work, and feeling like I wasn’t quite succeeding at anything. I didn’t take the time to address my underlying problems and anxieties and it didn’t take me long to get to a point where I just wanted to bail on everything – my job, my marriage, my life as I knew it. I was deeply unhappy.”
“What changed? In talking to you, you sound like someone who is really content and grounded. Or is it just a façade?” I quipped.
“No, no façade. I only changed two things,” he said. “I changed my perspective from saying ‘I have to’ to ‘I get to’. Just that simple switch of a word helped me to feel so much more grateful for my daily responsibilities. I get to go to work. I get to hear my kids enjoying life. I get to have a home to clean. How lucky am I?! Then, to work on the connection with my wife, I actively practice gratitude for her presence in my life every day before I get out of bed in the morning. I can honestly say that these two changes have completely revolutionized my life.”
I remember thanking him for sharing his story with me, and since that day I’ve thought of that conversation often. Looking back, I’m not too sure why this particular interaction has stayed with me all these years. Perhaps it was his honesty, or his maybe his kind and peaceful nature that helped his message hit home. No matter what it was, that conversation was the catalyst for me to incorporate a more active and intentional practice of gratitude in my life and start a little life revolution of my own!
I remember her well. I opened the door to the exam room to greet my next patient, and saw who I assumed to be your ordinary 66 year old lady. Her name was Grace. She had on a knit sweater and jeans, and she had curly grey hair, bright eyes, and a big easy laugh. We caught up a little bit, discussed some of her visual and eye health concerns, and then I proceeded to review her medications that had last been updated at her previous eye exam.
“Oh, I’m not taking any of those anymore.” Grace said proudly in reference to the high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol medications that were on her old list.
“None of them?” My eyebrows raised a little. “Is the rest of your health care team aware?” To drop so many medications in a relatively short period of time at that age was unusual.
“I’m their star patient actually!” she laughed. She then proceeded to recount her story. About a year and a half prior, Grace was struggling. She was on a host of medications to control her blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. A routine examination with her family doctor revealed that despite those medical interventions, her blood pressure was still high. Instead of adding another medication, her family doctor challenged her to lose weight, explaining that he felt as though a lifestyle change would get her further than any medication could. That turned out to be just the motivation she needed. After a life of sedentary living and poor eating habits, Grace got her body moving and began to eat healthier, more nutritious foods. After one year she had lost 90 pounds. Another 6 months saw her drop additional 30 pounds from her frame.
“My doctor couldn’t believe it when he saw me!” she said. “I was terrified to overhaul my life, but I’m forever grateful for being challenged in this way. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so good!”
Nowadays, every time I embark on a new challenge, especially when I’m out of my comfort zone and I feel that little pang of fear in my stomach, I think of her and the joy that was waiting for her on the other side.
As I write this, I can see the that the common thread that links the stories that stay with me and resonate with me the most is connection. We’re only on this earth for a sliver of time, and we’re all trying to seek meaning in this life. The most valuable currency we have is connection to those around us, and part of forming those connections is supporting each other and helping each other through some of life’s most universal challenges, like how to practice gratitude in the face of adversity, or how to turn your life around and face your fears when the odds are not in your favour. After over ten years in practice, I feel so fortunate to have a treasure trove of these impactful interactions in my memory bank, and I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn in the exam room over the next decade or two.