Survival of the Fittest

By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW

In health care, we know about survival.  It’s what we do.  Our patients, ourselves, our institutions.  Sometimes survival means getting through a traumatic event and recovering to be even better and stronger.  Sometimes it means just getting through it.  Whatever the outcome, if we’re doing it right, there is always something we can learn from the traumatic or challenging situations.  We might not always appreciate the lessons, but nonetheless they are there.  And there are countless strategies for surviving:  fighting like hell, hunkering down and pushing through, sitting back and watching it happen, or sometimes just lying down in the road and letting the steamroller flatten you.  Ok, maybe that last one doesn’t actually qualify as surviving… but you see where I’m going here.

Survival has really been the prevailing theme of my work life over the past year… almost exactly a year in fact.  This week is the anniversary of this whole thing.  I have had many, many conversations with my colleagues about what is getting them through this, and about how to survive it with our mental health intact.  I always wish I had answers for those who have been struggling, but this is all new to me too.  They didn’t offer a class in graduate school on surviving a pandemic (but maybe they will now).  So, it turned out that just talking to each other, and more importantly listening to each other, was the most valuable tool.  We’ve shared a lot of different emotions with each other, but I think the mixture of emotions is getting to be even more diverse now that we’re slowly climbing out of this hole.  I worry about the residual effects on all of you – physical, mental, emotional.  And I hope that at least those of you who read this column will heed my call to attend to your needs, whatever those might be, so that you can survive the aftershocks. Because there will be aftershocks.

As long as I’m getting personal in this column (what the heck), I will share that I had a near death experience in my 20s and I spent a month in the hospital not knowing if there would be an end to it.  There were surgeries, morphine pumps, nasogastric tubes (barbarity, btw), and plenty of tears.  But I survived it.  It is the kindness and loving care that was provided by the bedside staff that I remember most.  But it was the months following my discharge from the hospital that were actually the most difficult emotionally.  And I was left largely on my own to deal with it.  Sometimes I wonder how I could have ended up working in a hospital after all that trauma, but I realize that it was that experience that prepared me to be an effective advocate and counselor to people going through similar things.  And doing so has helped me heal from that trauma.  It’s crazy, really, but that’s how these things work.  You sometimes have to dive into something difficult head first in order to eventually get over it.

Regardless of what survival looks like for you, coming through the tail end of this pandemic, it will only be something that makes you stronger if you face it intentionally.  I had to get counseling, stay with my parents for a while, and reduce my school schedule in order to survive and eventually thrive through my traumatic experience.  It won’t look the same, or require the same things from each of us, but it will require attention.  I happen to work with the fittest people in health care as far as I’m concerned, so I don’t worry about you surviving.  What I would love, though, is to see you thrive.

Jennifer Buehrer, LMSW is a palliative care social worker at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.