I have long believed that it is important to look for the extraordinary among the ordinary. Like in those human interest stories you see on the evening news in which an unknown regular Joe does some heroic deed. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
In my own essay, “Don’t worry, at least we will die together!” I describe the calm acceptance of Palestinian medical students as they navigate an uncertain and sometimes scary world. And yet, amid the extraordinary facts of their lives – violence and guns and tear gas – they seem to have carved out a mostly ordinary life.
But medicine is full of the extraordinary every day. And really, how much extraordinary can one person absorb?
In the Spring 2017 Intima, Margot Hedlin writes a visually and emotionally evocative essay about becoming numb to the heart-wrenching and nausea-inducing things that happen to people and their bodies. I nodded knowingly as she described in “There’s a Limit to Your Love” her transformation from a queasy first year student who is barely able to stomach cadaver dissection to a battle-hardened senior medical student who longs for a front-row seat in the operating room, all the better to observe the bloody action in the surgical field.
In reading her essay it hit me that she has found a way to turn my pithy proverb upside down. Rather than seeking the extraordinary among the ordinary, to thrive in medicine she needed to take the truly extraordinarily awful insults to real lives and bodies and turn them into the ordinary. Dr. Hedlin has managed a polarity: maintaining empathy while managing one’s emotions.
Perhaps that is what my Palestinian friends were unconsciously doing: managing a polarity. They simultaneously live in a society in which their very lives are threatened all the while going about the ordinary routine of a medical student. They made their extraordinary lives a bit more ordinary and in so doing they brought some grace and comfort to a jarring world.
Part of me wants to continue to seek the extraordinary. I want to marvel at the incredible privilege of being a doctor in which I get to be a witness to the extraordinary. At the same time, another part of me is calmed and reassured by Hedlin’s journey to find the ordinary amid broken bodies and lives.
Perhaps there is space to do both.
David Hilden is an internal medicine physician practicing in a large urban hospital in Minneapolis. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 2000 and remains on the faculty as Associate Professor of Medicine. He has a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Minnesota focusing on healthcare policy. In addition to clinical care and teaching activities, he does health and wellness education to the general public online at myhealthymatters.org and on a live weekly radio broadcast. He has traveled to Israel and Palestine on three occasions with the aim of using healthcare to promote understanding of Middle East issues. His essay, "“Don’t worry, at least we will die together!” appears in the Spring 2017 Intima.