Can I Help?

A few days ago, I had oral surgery to address an ongoing infection in one of my upper molars.  The procedure involved cutting through my gums and manually removing the infection and the tips of the molar’s roots before sealing them off.  I’m not going to lie and say it was fun, or even no big deal.  I don’t like even simple dental procedures, and this one was a doozie, any way you looked at it.  But I can say that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated, for one reason and one reason only:  the terrific attitude of the endodontist and her staff.

From the minute I walked into the office, I was treated with compassion, patience and encouragement.  Did I want a blanket to cover up in?  Did I have any questions before we began?  Would I like the chair set to massage during the procedure?  Of course I wanted all of it, especially the chance to ask some last-minute questions.  And by the time the procedure began, I was much calmer more relaxed than I would ever have thought possible in those circumstances.  By the time it was over, I was actually kind of proud of myself for how well I handled it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my pride was misplaced.  Yes, I had done a good job of managing my nerves in the days before the procedure, but by the time of the actual appointment, I was both nervous and scared.  If the staff had been hurried and abrupt, brushing off my questions, rolling their eyes at my request for a last-minute bathroom break, or acting as if there was no reason for me to be apprehensive, my entire experience would have been very, very, different.  If I had even stuck around long enough for them to do it.  (I may be old, but I can still run pretty fast when I have to.)

The reason I was so calm during the procedure was because the endodontist and her staff did everything in their power to settle my nerves and allow me to get through it with as much dignity as possible.  And that is a gift that I will not soon forget.

I’m sure I was just one of a series of scared and nervous people that the endodontist’s staff has dealt with, and that the way I was treated was their normal routine.  But their patience and encouragement made a world of difference to me.  Which just goes to show that how we treat other people really is a very big deal.

It really doesn’t take that much effort to offer someone an encouraging word, or to listen when someone needs to express their fears and concerns.  It isn’t that hard to smile at a newcomer, to talk to someone who is lonely, or to offer our sympathy to someone who is grieving.  Yet each and every time we do these things, we may well be giving someone else that little bit of help they need to get them through whatever difficulty they happen to be facing at the time.  And what could be more important than that?

Open My Eyes

Last Monday, my post “A Blogger’s Voice” was featured on Word Press Discover page, which meant that my blog was suddenly getting a much bigger audience than usual.  For the most part, I was thrilled.  I think every writer wants their words to reach as many people as possible (if we didn’t, we would just write in a personal journal) and the thought of all those new readers was exciting.  I was also flattered that a Word Press editor thought my blog was worthy of being included in their Discover program.  I really didn’t think this would ever happen to my blog.

But a small part of me was also worried.  I knew that along with all that extra exposure came the very real risk of a whole lot of spam, criticism, and downright nasty comments.  When they let me know I was going to be included in Discover, Word Press even included advice on how to the handle negative comments that might be coming my way. Honestly, in the days between being notified that I was going to be “discovered” and before it actually happened, I even toyed with the idea of backing out of the whole thing.

But then I realized that none of this would have happened if my good blogging friend Barb Knowles hadn’t recommended me to a Word Press editor.  Barb writes a funny, poignant and insightful blog called Sane Teachers , and has been a wonderful source of inspiration and support.  I didn’t want to let her down or have her think I wasn’t grateful for her recommendation so I decided to just go for it.  I figured between my spam filter and my ability to moderate comments, I could handle whatever negativity came my way.

And you know what?  The nastiness, the criticism, and the spam never materialized.  In the past week, I’ve added about 500 new followers and the last time I looked, that post had about 1,700 views. My spam filter caught no more than the usual amount of spam, and I moved about eight comments into the trash only because they included what I thought might not be a legitimate Word Press link in them.  Even then, I may have been overly quick to hit the “trash” button, but I didn’t want to run the risk of any of my readers getting a virus from a link on my blog.

My point is not that all those people loved my blog.  I’m sure that most of them didn’t even read it, and simply hit the “follow” and “like” buttons in the hopes that I would do the same for their blog.  My point is that the onslaught of negativity that I had anticipated didn’t happen.  Instead, I received lots of positive and courteous comments from other bloggers.  Being “discovered” connected me to many people who also struggle with finding the courage to put their true thoughts and feelings into their posts and then send them out into cyberspace.  It let me communicate with people from all over the world, both getting and giving encouragement and good wishes.  It was an awesome experience.

I am very, very, grateful to Barb and to Word Press for the chance to be “discovered.”  I am grateful for the new views, follows and the comments on my post.  But what I most grateful for is the way that this whole experience reminded me that there is still so much good in the world, and so many good people in the world, if only I’m willing to open my eyes and see.

Follow the Sun

As you’ve probably heard, there’s going to be an total eclipse of the sun tomorrow.  It’s scheduled for roughly 1:00 in my neighborhood, which also happens to be just on the northern-most boundary of the path that is supposed to provide optimal viewing.  Living  in an area where I get to see the eclipse seemed like good news to me, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that there was a darker side to this event (and I’m not just talking about what happens when the sun is blocked by the moon.)  Apparently, thousands upon thousands of people are expected to head to my neck of the woods to view this rare phenomenon, and for the past couple of weeks the local news has been filled with dire predictions about all the havoc they are going to wreak.

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Not a single hotel room will be available.  Traffic will be a nightmare and all highway exit ramps will be blocked as people pull over, get out of their cars and  stare into the sky.  Gas stations may run out of gas and grocery stores may run out of food.  If you are in need of an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, chances are high that they will not be able to get to you in time.  And so on and so on.  You’d think we were anticipating a natural disaster that would make Hurricane Katrina look like a mild inconvenience.

It’s not that I take official warnings lightly.  I learned to pay attention the hard way back in 1982, when we had a blizzard that dropped about eighteen inches of snow on St. Louis.  Bizarrely, it was accompanied by lightening, and my husband and I sat in our living room during the whole thing, playing cards and occasionally peering out the window at the snow storm.  The next morning we woke up to a city that was completely shut down, and I realized that we were just about out of groceries.  I pulled on my snow boots and trudged up the street to the neighborhood grocery.  I have never seen so many empty shelves in my life.  I think there was maybe two cans of beans and a jar of pickles left in the entire store.

These days, when even the tiniest bit of snow is forecast, I do exactly the same thing everybody else in St. Louis does:  I rush to the grocery store and stock up on enough groceries to last me through Spring if necessary.  Especially bread and milk.  And I don’t even like milk.

But when the big day arrives tomorrow, I’m not going to stay at home, guarding my well-stocked pantry and full tank of gas.  I’m going to go to the animal shelter to walk dogs the way I always do on Monday morning, and afterwards I’m going to my mother’s house because she has invited some friends and neighbors over for lunch and eclipse-viewing.  I’ll avoid the highways, but just in case I do get stuck in traffic and don’t make it to Mom’s house, I’m keeping my approved viewing glasses in the car with me.  One way or another, the odds are good that I’ll get to see the eclipse.

I believe in heeding warnings, and I definitely believe in being prepared.  But what I believe in most is using a little bit of good old-fashioned common sense.

The Wall

If I made a list of 1,000 ways I’d like to spend my day, having a root canal wouldn’t make the cut.  I’m nervous during even routine visits to the dentist, where the only thing they remove from my teeth is a little bit of unwanted tartar.  Major procedures where they actually drill into my teeth to remove nerves or advanced decay usually terrify me, and make me wish I had a nice big bottle of Valium handy.  Or morphine.  Or enough anesthetic to knock out a hippo.

So I’d been feeling pretty darned proud of myself lately, what with getting through two root canals in less than a week and managing to handle myself with a certain amount of grace and dignity during both of them.  I did not curse at the dentist, try to exit the chair before the procedure was over, or threaten anyone with grievous bodily harm if they hurt me at all.  I was polite and cooperative, if a bit tense, and even thanked both the dentist and her assistant for their good work before I left the office.

All of which is to say that I had convinced myself that I was finally okay with major dental procedures, and no longer the sort of person who had a hard time sleeping the night before even a minor filling was scheduled.  I won’t go as far as saying that I was looking forward to the three crowns I have to get next week, but I wasn’t overly nervous about them either.  So it came as a complete shock to me just how strongly I reacted last night when I discovered that there was a chance I might actually need a third root canal  before the week was up.

If you’ve ever seen a two-year old throw a temper tantrum, you can probably picture the hissy fit I threw last night.  I stomped around the house, said all the curse words that I had held back during the previous root canals, snapped at my husband when he tried to reason with me, and even cried just a little bit. Eventually, not unlike a two-year old, I took to my bed and slept it off. Apparently, I wasn’t handling things quite as well as I had thought.

What I had assumed was a major change in my feelings about dental procedures was actually just a case of my sucking it up and doing what needed to be done.  Two of my teeth needed a root canal, and so I had two root canals, and behaved like an adult during the process.  But underneath that calm demeanor was a person who is very anxious whenever she sits down in the dental chair, and that person was counting on the fact that there were no more root canals in her near future.  The possibility that I might have to endure another one was more than I could handle last night, and so I had just a bit of a melt-down.

Of course, once I woke up this morning, I had calmed down and realized that I could, in fact, handle whatever procedures, dental or otherwise, I am still facing.  And even though I was just a little embarrassed by my behavior last night, I also realized that it really isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.  No matter how much we try to be strong and cope with whatever life throws at us, there are times when it is just going to feel like too much.  And those are the times when we “hit the wall,” emotionally speaking.  We vent, we cry, we withdraw a bit, and stop pretending to be stronger than we really are.  It’s just part of being human.

And eventually, we find the courage to pick ourselves up and keep right on going, which is all that really matters anyway.

It’s In The Blood

I have a long history of fainting at the sight of blood, which I ignore at my peril.  Once when I was in high school, the principal asked me and a couple of friends if we would be willing to spend part of the afternoon helping out at the local blood drive by typing up the registrations of potential donors.  I was so taken by the thought of skipping a few classes (legitimately!) that I agreed.  At first everything was fine, since they had us sitting by the door with our backs to where people were lying on cots, having blood drained out of them, and I could just ignore the whole thing and concentrate on getting the cards filled out properly.  But then an attendant walked by carrying a tray stacked with clear bags full of blood.  I took one look and immediately passed out face down on my typewriter.

My fear of blood, and if I’m honest, anything remotely resembling a medical procedure means that I’ve never been what you would call a model patient.  No medical professional has ever looked into his or her waiting room and said, “Oh good, Ann Coleman is here!”  Instead, it’s “Oh crap, Ann Coleman is here!  Maybe if we ignore her long enough, she’ll go away.”

So when I first found out that the bulging veins in my lower leg were a somewhat serious problem that had to be treated by shooting a laser up a vein in my upper thigh to sear it shut, I was, to put it mildly, not a happy camper.  I’m pretty sure I turned pale, because the nurse had me sit down and brought me a glass of water.  But I knew things were only going to get worse if I didn’t go ahead with the procedure, so I put on my big-girl panties and scheduled the appointment.  When the day finally came, I was nervous and tired (I didn’t sleep well the night before, obviously), but also looking forward to just getting it over with.

And amazingly, I did pretty well.  Even when it took them four tries to get the catheter (I think that’s what they called it) into my vein in order to pump in the numbing solution.  The doctor told me that my veins kept “spazzing out” when they got close, which doesn’t surprise me.  Clearly, my veins don’t like anyone messing with them any more than I do.  Then came the laser, which they told me was 300-degrees hot.  Do you know that expression, “I was so mad, my blood was boiling?”  Apparently, mine actually was, at least for a little while.

Now I know that there are tons of people in the world who have had major surgeries, major medical procedures, and numerous treatments that were both horribly invasive and severely painful, and what I went through last Friday is nothing compared to those.  Believe me, I know that.  But I also know what a total wimp I have always been about medical procedures and anything involving blood, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m feeling just a little bit proud of myself for having my vein fixed without the need for general anesthesia or copious amounts of alcohol and sedatives.

For me, this was a bit of a turning point.  It was proof that I can be strong enough to face down my fears when I need to do so.  It showed me that I am still growing and evolving, and that I’m not the same person who once fainted just from looking at a bag of blood.  It proved that I don’t have to be defined by all my old fears and all my old doubts, and that’s rather liberating.  I know I haven’t conquered all my fears, but believe me, this was a very good start.

Middle Age Courage

I have never been a brave person.  Sometimes, if I am angry enough, I find myself acting bravely (if not stupidly), such as the time I was trick or treating when I was ten and two boys tried to take my candy away.  Even though one of them had a knife, I was so enraged at the thought of the bullies stealing my Halloween candy that I fought back…and kept the candy.  Luckily, the knife never came into the struggle.  I suspect it was a pocket knife they had brought along just to intimidate other kids.  And even though I was “brave” during the actual confrontation, I was terrified as soon as it was over, and that was the end of my trick or treating on that particular Halloween night.

But my strongest fear has always centered around anything to do with medical procedures. I got queasy just visiting people in a hospital, fainted at the mere sight of blood, and the reason I don’t have pierced ears is because the chance to wear pretty earrings was never enough of a reason to allow someone to shove a needle through my ear lobes.  When I was pregnant with my first child, my biggest fear about childbirth wasn’t the pain, it was the thought of having to be hooked up to an IV.  I remember having a heated argument about that with my obstetrician, as he insisted it was necessary for me to “have a vein open” and I insisted that it wasn’t necessary for him to give me an IV, or even to use such disgusting phrases as “have a vein open” in my presence.

Which is why I am so surprised (and a bit proud) that I recently had an eyebrow lift, which was an elective surgical procedure that was performed while I was awake.   For years I’ve had a problem with a drooping eyebrow on my left eye, because where the skin overlapped I would get a painful sore, right at the outside corner of my eye, which is not a good place to be putting an antibiotic ointment. One day I actually made an appointment with an opthalmic plastic surgeon who told me that an eyebrow lift was the least invasive way to fix the problem.  Of course, he wanted to do an eyelid lift as well, so that my eyes would look “perky and young again.” But since an eyelid lift involves cutting on my actual eyelids, I declined.  Very firmly.

The procedure actually wasn’t so bad.  I was awake, but numb.  I could hear the snip of the scissors cutting my skin, and feel the pressure of the stitches, but no pain.  They had given me a Valium which they said might make me go to sleep, but I was way too nervous for that.  Mostly, I sat there, listening to the chatter between the surgeon and the nurse, marveling that I was neither fainting or running screaming from the room.  Obviously, I have become a much braver person that I was all those years ago when I fainted just from seeing a full bag of blood at a blood drive.

It may sound trite, but I think I have become braver just through living my life.  I learned not to faint at the sight of blood the first time one of my kids cut themselves badly and no one was around to help them but me.  I got over my fear of hospitals when I had to spend time in them as a patient, or visiting hospitalized family members who needed me to stay and support them, and not selfishly wimp out.  And now that my body is beginning to show signs of wear and tear, I have the courage to patch it up a bit, even when that means a medical procedure.  I have a good friend who is facing a hip replacement next month, and I know that something like that could be in my future, too.  While I hope I don’t ever have to face that, I don’t find the prospect as overwhelmingly terrifying as I once would have.

As the saying goes, “aging is not for the faint of heart.”  But the good news is that, somewhere along the line, we acquire the courage to deal with it.