This morning at #OpenEd16, I presented as part of a panel on “Floating on a Sea of Data: Why Higher Ed Needs #SoNAR. I was a last minute addition, joining Kate Bowles, Kristen Eshleman, Bonnie Stewart, Dave Cormier, and Amy Collier when another panelist became unavailable. The position was offered to me as an opportunity related to my recent collaboration with Kristen on using Sensemaker. “Yes” was the obvious answer, even I had never heard of #SoNAR and my formal experience in narrative inquiry was fairly scant.
I sat quietly in the first planning session listening to the others. As they spoke, I looked for holes in their expertise (there were none) and ways in which I was different from them (there were plenty), as a means to understand how I might best contribute.
At first, I couldn’t find an answer, but around the same time a friend of mine sent me a collection of vignettes and journal entries that he had written in the aftermath of an life-altering event. More than any philosophical conversation, his work reminded me of the power of stories as a way of being in the world: a way of remembering, understanding, and healing.
In reading his stories, I remembered that I had written my own in the year after I left medical practice, a collection of ten essays that I felt captured the essence of my medical education and practice experience. And as I considered his stories and how they related to mine, I realized what I could contribute to the conversation at #OpenEd16: a story of my own, one that might be as powerful for the audience as my friend’s had been for me.
Today I shared the tenth story of my collection in a Peroscoped conference session and in front of a packed audience. The aim was to set the stage for Kate, Kristen, Bonnie, Dave, and Amy to discuss the need to harness narrative inquiry for systemic change. However, this was also an opportunity for me to be more open and honest about who I am. It was an opportunity to be brave.
Only one other person had ever read these stories before today. Sharing this part of my life with other people in ways that are complicated, half-written, and raw has never been a priority for me, in part because I have been afraid that people would not understand. Even the “good” stories seemed too risky to share. Maybe I wouldn’t be believed. Maybe I would be accused of being arrogant if I showed myself in too good a light. Maybe people would find bad things in my story where I had originally thought there was good.
Today, I made a decision to trust the OpenEd community. When you asked if you could Periscope the session, I said yes because I trusted you to take care of me if things went wrong. You have supported me through my dissertation, professional trials, and bouts of self-doubt and despair. You are my professional family, and this conference is my home. If I were going to share these things anywhere, it would be at OpenEd, with you.
The sharing was not easy. If you watch the video, you’ll hear that I almost stopped before I started. You’ll hear how slow I was because it was hard to get the words out. You’ll hear me speed up as you laughed and responded in ways that made things easier. You’ll hear me finish, grieving all over again at the end of the story, but satisfied that I had said everything that needed to be said.
I am so grateful to all of you.
Stories are a way of being in the world, with other people. I am here to offer an example. As many of you know, I used to be a gynecologist practicing alone in a small remote hospital in Virginia. For a lot of reasons, I burned out and left medical practice. But in the year after that happened, I wrote down ten stories that I felt captured the essence of my experience as a medical student, resident, and physician. I wrote down these stories so that I could remember, try to understand what had happened, and to begin to heal.
This is Chapter 10 pretty much as I wrote it five years ago.
My last four months were some of the busiest of my career, but I had looked up from the work just long enough to notice that it was springtime in the countryside. I was counting down the days by this point. On the tenth day before my last, I was enjoying my pre-dawn commute through the country when I saw Andy’s (pseudonym) text come across my phone: “Laura. Please tell me you are already here.”
Andy was a former chiropractor, now rural ER doc, and my only friend in the Emergency Department. I immediately picked up speed and called him back. A woman in labor with her second child was lying in the trauma bay. I only had to observe one set of contractions to know she was moving from latent to active labor right before my eyes.
Active labor is notoriously unpredictable in second babies. It could take thirty minutes, two hours, or stall out altogether. My little rural hospital did not technically offer obstetrical care so it had minimal obstetrical equipment available for me to use. In this particular case, the lack of equipment it put me in a very tight spot. I was a trained and board certified obstetrician as well as a gynecologist and could be held accountable regardless of access to equipment; I had to make the decision on whether to transport her to another hospital and risk her delivering en route or keep her at this hospital, which was unprepared for a laboring woman who wasn’t in act of giving birth.
I will be honest: I cannot remember what this woman looked like or what her name was, but I remember every part of her story. Her midwife, whom she loved, was over an hour away in the city. The diversion to my hospital had been about policy, not about her choice. And I could feel this: This woman felt very much alone.
I knew the roads between my town and the city well. I knew the woods, the deep isolation, the very spotty cell service. I knew there would be no help for us if we got in trouble along the way. But as I felt the rhythm of her labor, my instincts told me that we could make it if we left immediately with the right sort of drivers. The woman and I considered the options briefly. We made the decision together, as best as we knew how.
I walked out of the trauma bay to eyeball the drivers, because I was only going to try this if I thought they would drive with a special sort of passion. One was a tall skinny kid with two large earrings. The other was only slightly older, with a serious neck tattoo. In other words, they looked perfect to me. I literally held my hands over my heart as I asked them to drive me and the woman as fast as they could.
There was something hypnotic about that ride. Without access to drugs or monitors there was nothing doctor-like for me to do. I had nothing to offer but myself and the confidence of another woman who had given birth before. The woman and I sat in silence, holding hands, her eyes closed. The drivers rarely used the sirens as they moved over the empty roads. The rush of the wind and the rocking motion of the rig only heightened the feeling of acceptance that wrapped me up together with this woman. I watched the sun rise over the tiny fields that marked the edges of the forest.
With a definite air of victory, the drivers turned on the sirens as we burst onto the city’s morning traffic. The sun was fully up. The woman sensed the change and opened her eyes between contractions, which were now only one minute apart. I smiled and looked down at her, announcing – only when I was absolutely sure – that this baby would be born in the hospital. I asked her if the baby had a name. She looked at me but only had time to smile before another contraction began.
Reaching Labor and Delivery was anticlimactic. The midwife met us at the elevator doors. We transferred the woman to the hospital bed, stopped for fresh linens and coffee, and like all good EMTs, slipped away unnoticed.
The drivers sat up front, and I rode home alone in the back of the rig, ripping a Styrofoam cup into bits on the cold, vibrating metal floor. My phone buzzed in my pocket and it was a text from the midwife. She had wanted me to know of the delivery – a baby girl. Baby Serenity had been born 20 minutes after we had arrived at the hospital. Both mom and baby were fine.
The rig rattled enough that the drivers in the front couldn’t hear me so I let myself l cry and laugh and cry a little more. The baby’s name was Serenity and she had done her job. I had just traversed the riskiest scenario that I ever would in my medical career and it had never occurred to me to be afraid. It had been an ending and a beginning, both simple and good, a true journey through the woods that the woman and I had both gotten through.