by Dr. Anna Reid
I have always been drawn to the physical landscapes of both rock and water, and to the way water shapes rock, eventually showing itself to be more powerful. I had just never considered these as forces within myself. Until recently.
I have been in a place of profound transition, retiring (and exhausted) after a long unprocessed career in family and emergency medicine. Letting my license go was both liberating and the death of a huge part of me. But, as the wonderful poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Death comes before the rolling away of the stone.”
I came upon the tragedy near the end of a long day of mountain driving, in treacherous snow conditions.
The smashed car was there on the bridge. My heart sank and my body raced. Two victims talking, two not. I could smell the fear all around. One pulseless, one with a fading pulse. An onlooker and I hauled the two women, now both pulseless, out through the shattered windows and started CPR on the cold, snowy and lifeless highway. Sometime later firefighters and the paramedics arrived. I struggled with the length of the inadequate and increasingly futile resuscitation. With no tools of my trade, I was traumatized by feeling that I could not “call” an end. I was not a licensed member of the emergency team now present. The feeling of, and the essence of, death were all around.
I was impotent- impotent in my new non-doctor role, impotent to avert tragedy. I had felt like this before but now the finality of feeling my non-professional status was deeply unsettling.
I did not expect this experience to affect me like it did. Why would it? Years of resuscitations, pointless deaths from trauma, countless “cases”, all immediately pushed aside for the next. Several previous roadside emergencies. All taken in big strides. All experienced with amazing “resilience”.
I felt the rumblings all the way home, and the next few days felt like tectonic plates shifting.
The rock inside me which had tightly walled off the decades of subterranean suppressed emotions and pain had suddenly found a fault line. My grief about lives lost, cases in which I felt my care was inadequate, being witness to patients’ endings which were not as beautiful as they would have liked, suddenly came shooting up to the surface, like hot magma. The grief was visceral and the need to process it had an urgency. I knew I couldn’t move on unless I processed the grief I could not previously access. We don’t have grief rituals in medicine. Rituals which in most cultures allow us to process major life transitions: birth, loss, death.
And so I started my own ritual, with self-compassion for how I, for years, betrayed my body, my heart and my soul by being “rock solid”. I sit by moving water, feel and hear it flow through me. I reflect on the river’s and my journey through many landscapes until we reach the sea and the endless horizon.
Oscar Wilde wrote: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” And from that ground, my fault lines have given way to the biggest gift I could receive. The rock gave way to an artesian spring of vitality which feels unstoppable, is sweetly drinkable. The gift of the beginning of the new.
Death comes before the rolling away of the stone.Mary Oliver
About Dr. Anna Reid
Dr. Anna Reid is a recently retired family and emergency physician. She practiced in rural, remote, and referral hospitals in BC and the Northwest Territories. She also served as the president of the Canadian Medical Association, amongst other leadership activities. During her career she experienced pure joy, deep sorrow and beautiful connections. She remains deeply grateful to her patients, who showed her how to live through adversity and taught her the meaning of courage.
In her new phase of life in the West Kootenays, she is rediscovering her vital force through the wilderness, music, literature and her rich community of friends and family.