Spirit/Essay. The Road Home.

We are all on the road Home. We simply do not know how soon we will get there.

Although it is April and should be spring, there are still rare patches of snow in shaded spots. Yesterday’s rain began as flurries. When it was warmer this morning, the dogs were surprised, then shocked and tired, tongues out.

In an earlier time, before we had dogs and a child, we often handled holidays like Easter and Labor Day as three-day weekends, driving the seven hours from New England to Pennsylvania to my parents’ home or Jeff’s parents’ for a quick visit.

One year, we arrived as the first splashes of autumn color marked the trees. My brother grilled dinner while I talked to my father. Jeff chased our niece and nephew. Dad seemed fine, firmly in the period that follows middle age and precedes the fragility that chills with the promise of death. It was his autumn too.

We talked of this and that. Then he looked at the sun setting in the west and his tone became reflective. He said calmly that he had walked farther than he had yet to walk, and perhaps that was not a bad thing. It is never a bad thing to know you are nearing home.

My father died suddenly nine years later. He walked to the post box to drop off mail, walked home, and fell just inside the front door. My mother, who was a CPR instructor, tried to resuscitate him until medics came, but his heart did not restart.

When I remember him, I think of him as he was that day —scents of autumn in the air, standing with his hand gently over his face, looking at a setting sun and talking of the journey and the journey’s end.

All lives end in death. What makes life a miracle, a challenge, a wonder we can never fully comprehend, is the journey— the steps and stumbling blocks and wild, wonderful rides that mark the landscape between birth and death.

None of us knows how long our journey will be, how many steps or sunsets or years are left to us. My father was in his sixties the evening he talked with me, for the first time, about his life and death. At that age, it was more than fair to say he had walked farther than he had yet to go. I have now lived almost 60 years.

It isn’t the distance that matters though, either how far I have come or how far I have yet to go. What matters is that I look back often enough to retain the best of what was, weigh what to let go, and then walk purposefully forward.

There is much I want to do, to write, to say, moments I want to share with my family, my son, my pets, all of the friends who have blessed my life and given it richness.

Regardless of your age, whether you count steps or haven’t begun to feel there is a finite number of steps to count, we know some things. We should live every day fully, as if we have forever and yet as if it is our last.

Do what needs to be done. Love without reservation. Make a difference today. Do not downplay or forget the comfortable, the kind, the quiet because it is not the extraordinary, the amazing, the symphonic.

I always loved listening to my father, the scholarly, religious historian who never felt young again after he saw his lieutenant die after stepping on a landmine on their first day in Europe in World War II.

For all of the knowledge and insights he shared with me for more than 40 years, though, I remember the message captured in a quiet conversation while we waited for dinner. Life is partially as beautiful as it is because we never know how colorful it will be or how long it will last.

My husband took this photo on a trip to take my son back to his residential school for students with autism after a visit home. The mountain’s fall foliage is bright, yet the sudden snow is unmistakable. we never know when our seasons will turn, when our winter will come.

Do not let a day end in anger, or allow the meaningful to go undone or be left unsaid. Death is not an enemy we can defeat or at least, if life were a game, take to overtime. Death is the end of life. We want to make sure we make the most of the journey, however long it lasts.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Spirit/Essay. Mindfulness in the Snow.

I went into the backyard to pick up toys before they might be buried by an unexpected late winter snowfall. At some point I stopped looking at the ground and watched the birds around our feeders. I saw a red squirrel watching me curiously, an invader in his neighborhood.

And then I let go and simply existed with the birds and their songs and the red squirrel and anyone else out there in the patch of trees that is a trail for deer, turkeys and other neighbors down to the river at the foot of the hill.

When I became aware again of the dogs playing and the sound of car tires on the road, I was richer. I was mindful of the wealth of what I could have missed, so often have missed.

Life is full of moments to capture. Life is full of moments to let go. Wisdom is learning to know the difference.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Spirit/Essay. Finding Power in Powerlessness.

Once, I thought empowerment was finding abilities and building life on use of them. Then I survived a summer of powerlessness.

One July day, I met an email friend and drove her to Salem. As a European, she was fascinated by the witch trials, so we walked through tourist museums and found a book for her to take home.

When we arrived at our house, where we met my husband and son for ice cream, she went into the yard to play with the dogs. My husband, Jeff, drew me aside to say “Your mother called. Your father died this morning.”

There was no warning. Daddy entered the house after walking to the mailbox, Mother heard him place his cap on the table and then the sound of his body hitting the tile floor. She did CPR until paramedics came, but it failed.

I started a novel Jeff had recommended on the train trip home, in between telling passengers who noticed I was alone that I was going to bury my father and had to come alone so my husband could stay with our little boy, who had autism. I said this emotionlessly and repetitively as if many fellow travelers were going home to bury their childhood.

I survived the tasks, the service, accompanying Mother to the lawyer’s office. I worried about our dog, Teddy, my son’s rock, his service dog before we understood what a service dog was, because Teddy was dying.

Unlike Daddy, who went directly into that good night, Teddy had spent more of his life in the dusk of autoimmune disease than he had as a healthy puppy. Before I had left, I told Teddy if it were time to let go, he should. He held on, dying three weeks after my father.

And then, on a Tuesday morning less than a month after that, I heard an odd radio report: A small plane had flown into the World Trade Center. By the time I got home, there was a second plane, and the world-unraveling sensation I had felt when my husband said “Your father died this morning” started again.

The only person who could have comforted me was my father, who had fought in Europe at 18, seen Dachau, and become the gentle history teacher I knew because of the horrible history he had survived and never discussed… but he was gone.

Then I went back and finished the novel I had started on the train: The Doomsday Book. The novel’s premise is seductive for history lovers, and my Dad had loved both history and science fiction. It is Christmas, 2054, Oxford University. Time travel is possible. Seniors travel to their period to experience it. Some periods, including the middle ages, are off limits, in part because of technological limits, in part because of the history.

But the Chairman is off fishing. Mr. Gilchrist of Medieval History is acting Chair, and he sends his best student, Kivrin Engel, to Christmas 1320.

Kivrin is sick when she arrives. As she shivers with fever, she watches the women who tend her. The historian is an observer, taking in information about the elderly woman with chapped hands and raspy voice and the younger woman whose keys jingle at her belt and whose hands are gentle. As days pass, Kivrin feels as if she is inside a history book, but no one talks the way she was taught they would, clothes and furnishings are much rougher than expected, and the smells of excrement and sweat in a smoky room are nauseating, even with a terribly stuffed nose.

A little girl begins to sneak in and gaze openly at her. One morning, the little girl’s words make sense, and Kivrin no longer sees characters, she meets people. Agnes is five or six, the youngest child and highly aware there are too few adults to make holiday preparations and supervise her. She is delighted with her visitor and smuggles her puppy and gilded toy cart into the room for Kivrin to see.

The holidays come, and illness arrives in the form of a sick priest. Unlike Kivrin, he doesn’t have the flu. As Kivrin helps to undress him, she sees a discolored lymph node in his armpit, a bubo. She isn’t in 1320, a relatively benign year, but 1348 — and the Black Death has come to England.

At the end of things, it seems you cannot change history, no matter how much you know, how hard you try, how deeply you love. The plague wiped out half of Europe over less than two years’ time. Whole villages were lost. Even the animals died, alone and untended.

As Kivrin sits with the last villager, the quiet, stolid priest she has come to admire, he surprises her with his last thoughts. They are not bitter, nor despairing, but thankful. He talks quietly, saying “All men must die, and none, not even Christ, can save them… Yet have you saved me from fear and unbelief.”

And she had. As each person got sick, as the manor steward buried one person after another until the dead outnumbered the living, Kivrin was firm. It is not the end of the world. It is not God’s judgment. It is not Doomsday. It is a disease.

There was fear, but no panic. Although they died as surely as their neighbors in nearby villages did, some of the horror was removed from the dying. They still believed there would be a tomorrow, even if they did not see it.

Long after I finished the book, I learned audiotapes found in the debris of the World Trade Center proved some firemen made it to the floors of impact on September 11, began triaging the wounded, and got together groups to send down the stairs. They didn’t save lives, but they changed everything.

People who were caught in fire were no longer isolated. Help had come. They were not alone. They could regain hope, a belief that they might survive, that they should keep trying. The firemen could not alter the deaths, but they changed the dying.

My empowerment came from all of those awful experiences, the ones I lived through and those that brushed by me (two of my husband’s work friends were in the plane that hit the North Tower; his niece was beneath it in the transit station when it was hit).

My empowerment endures because I think of Daddy and Teddy and the fictional Kivrin.

We are all called to service, to do the same as Kivrin, to give up our sense of distance from others, the observer’s emotional remove that keeps us safe.

We are called to revel in each other’s joys and flinch with their pain. We can endure more than we think we can. We may be able to change more than we think we can. We need to try.

The lesson of Doomsday is not how to die one day, but how to live every day.

That is power.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Spirit/ Essay. I heard the bells on Christmas Day… Hear them again.

I grew up in Pennsylvania where Christians included kids who went to churches like mine, kids who attended Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic mass, and kids who had the daily prayers and Sunday services of the Amish and Mennonites.
One of my favorite Christmas carols was (and is) “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.”

A few years ago I learned that it was a son of New England’s puritan tradition, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the text as a poem on Christmas Day 1863.

That year he had watched his beloved wife burn to death after her dress caught fire. He was burned while trying to save her. Later that year, he had traveled hundreds of miles to find and bring home his eldest son, who had been badly wounded in the Civil War.

I think it likely the cheer of Christmas morning in his house must have been at least partially artificial, something he generated for his younger children. I do know that later that day, as he sat in his house near the churches of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he put his pen to paper.

If you omit the verse that specifically referenced the war, he wrote something that may resonate with many of us, as it did with me when I was small.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then in despair I bowed my head,
There is no peace on earth I said.
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then sang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Peace on earth, good will to men.

Five years ago on the night before Thanksgiving, I had emergency neurosurgery to clean out infection around my spine that had developed after back surgery two weeks previously. I would end up hospitalized until the end of February for intravenous antibiotic therapy, for treatment to get the reluctant surgical wound to heal, for physical therapy to walk again.

I was never afraid of death that night or the first shadowy days afterward. There were moments I felt an immensity of sorrow that I might not see my husband again, that I wouldn’t see my son into his adulthood, but I was never afraid.
I didn’t need to look for my faith. It had never left. It was in my heart, built bit by bit from a childhood of religious observance and education, but more so by a childhood of watching how the truly faithful live.

I do not know what Longfellow felt while he wrote, but I know that I couldn’t appreciate God’s love and the immensity of living with faith if I had not lived through terribly dark times, months I lived in depression, years I have worried about making the right decisions for my only son, who was born with autism and more than a handful of other significant medical challenges.

This year I learned not only do I have a history of traumatic brain injury (from the accident that ended my life as a young doctor), I have a small brain tumor.

We never know how many days we have, so I immersed myself in Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, so I can appreciate the life of those without something larger than themselves to believe in and recognize the miracle of knowing there is something so much larger than we are, a God who knows each of us, loves each of us, wants to walk through our lives with us.

I’ve heard the bells on Christmas day. They do not ring to say life will be easy, or assured, or bright and celebratory. They ring to call us to action, to live according to the beliefs we say we have.

They ring to remind us that we can work toward a world in which there is true peace, one among the many vibrant peoples of humankind, not one of a temporary truce or, worse yet, the death of war.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, reflect how to show the world your beliefs one action at a time, one kindness or courtesy at a time, one act of tolerance at a time.

One of the truths of the cultural Christmas is the recognition that we are bound together by so much more than separates us, that we can smile at strangers and see neighbors, that we can wish each other a good holiday and mean it.

This is a season of good will, of thinking more about what we can give than what we might receive.

Enjoy the season. Enrich others’ lives. Listen to the bells.

Then live that all year for as many years as you have to come.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Spirit/ Essay. A Question about Hats, a Matter of Heart.

When I was little, I loved watching people in their Sunday best, especially the elegant lady who made me think of Queen Elizabeth. I realized, though, that coats and hats and outer finery generally came off in the cloak room. Hats came off, including Easter’s bonnets, as people settled into pews. Even the elegant lady who sat halfway up the aisle on the right took hers off if she went to the altar for communion.

Once I asked my father why we dressed up only to take so many things off. Our regional tradition was old and simple, he said. We dress neatly to show respect, and we take off all hats and come to the altar bare-headed because bare we came into the world, and bare-headed we approach God.

I grew up in a small town with many versions of Christianity but not much else in religious diversity; however, I read a lot. If respect is baring one’s head, I asked Daddy, why do Jewish men wear a skullcap into synagogue, and why do both men and women in some forms of Judaism seem to cover their heads all the time?

For the same reason, he said. Each religious tradition is based on awareness and respect, but it is shown differently. The intention is the same, but mindfulness of the presence of God can be shown by the simplicity of being bare-headed or the practice of representing the power of God over people through His physical representation in the form of cap or scarf over the head, either in sanctuary or in daily life.

And so my curiosity expanded from history (Daddy was a high school history teacher) to comparative religion, and I spent many treasured hours walking and talking with my father.

He taught me to observe how people hold themselves, how they talk, how they treat others—to look for their character, their intentions. Intention, he believed, said far more than whether people looked or acted like me or in a way that was unfamiliar. Sometimes, as with bared and covered heads, there is no right and wrong, simply different.

He mentored numerous students over the years, many the children of army officers from the USA and other countries whose fathers were at the War College and who were my temporary worldly classmates.

I learned to stand firm in my beliefs without needing other people to agree with me. He taught me that it is all right to ask with childlike curiosity, but never with the childish intent of making someone look different, that they do not fit in.

Ten years ago, two friends with whom I was sharing dinner wanted to split a tray of sample beers. I said I didn’t drink. When they looked a little uncertain, I smiled and said I couldn’t because of my medication (that I never had was beyond the point). They should enjoy the brewery samples. If it happened now, I would just as comfortably decline the alcohol but would have ice tea to drink, having decided several years ago that soda (for me) is not a healthful choice.

Many things change, but there will always be what is familiar from childhood, what has become routine as adult practice, and what is different or new. Different or new may be uncomfortable, but it need not be threatening …. at least until we understand the intention and history behind it.

We are nearing December, the end of the calendar year. It is the time when people in the Northern Hemisphere honor the turning of seasons to the shortest and coldest of days, with the promise of the return of light and warmth.

It is a sacred month for many religions, a time that holds a special place for many ancient and modern cultures. The diverse December calendar reminds me that both children and adults may have questions about hats, but we need to remember we all have human hearts, with many ways of expressing them.

If someone wants to share something that holds comfort, splendor, or culinary delight, see that proffered bit of their spirit for what it is. We can honor that intention even when we cannot accept what is offered.

In the coming weeks, I will travel through Advent to prepare for Christmas. Others travel different paths toward a different readiness for God or for another perception of harmony with the infinite.

I wish you all a reflective solstice, happy holidays and holy days, and all best wishes for the upcoming year.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ © HealingWoman

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Thought for Thanksgiving Week.

A visual thought as we Americans prepare for Thanksgiving and everyone in the Northern Hemisphere thinks about the end of the harvest season, the need to be grateful for what we have, and the moments when we remember what was and what will come.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Thought for the Day.

We have had a long Autumn, with only two nights so far that have gone down to freezing temperatures.

After last weekend, though, the colors are sober and it is clear November is here.

This photo captures one of the lady bugs that flood into the house during the last warm stretch to find comfort. There were probably 50 by the back door yesterday, but none today.

We all matter. We all matter infinitely.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Spirit/Essay. Remembrance Day.

I have always loved Concord, a small town that was a sparsely settled farm town in 1775 and is a comfortable, rural-feeling suburb today. The name suggests harmony and peace. The area around the Old North Bridge is mostly wetland, and the bridge was (and is) one of the few places near the center of town where you can cross the river.

On a spring day in 1775, it was not peaceful there. British soldiers in woolen uniforms and full battle packs had trudged west from their encampment in Boston to look for munitions and some colonial leaders. Militia men of Massachusetts converged on the soldiers. In confusion, shots were fired.

Three British soldiers died at the bridge, and more died on the chaotic retreat to a city that had been hostile since they arrived after traveling 3000 miles by ship, a city where British colonists called themselves Americans, a place in which a bloody and brutal birthing of a nation was about to begin.

I am descended from the man who was the captain of the Watertown militia. When I was small, I envisioned him bravely defending the bridge from “Redcoats.” In a child’s simplicity, Americans were good. Their British cousins, bad.

Years later, I remember my father, who fought in Europe at 18, who went eastward across the Atlantic to defend the principle that might does not make right. He went because he should, he killed men there, and he came home a gentle, quiet man who would brook no pride in anything involving death.

My great aunt (his aunt) first told me about that day in 1775 as she had heard it as a child. The man got word before dawn that the British were marching, he and his men walked to the main road from Boston westward to Lexington and Concord, and they waited, watching the British march quietly west.

The retreat back to Boston was bloodiest for both sides late in the afternoon in that town, Menotomy (its native name, now Arlington), so close to the safety, or escape, that Cambridge and Charlestown offered.

Someone came to the farm the next morning and told his wife and six children that he was dead. The oldest son hitched an ox-cart and brought his father’s body home. The father’s name was Joseph Coolidge, he was in his early 40s, and I named my son for him. He wasn’t a hero, but he went when called, he did his duty, and he died. Neither my Joseph nor I am more or less for being descended from him, but I wanted my son to become a man he would be proud of. I live wanting to be a woman he and my father would be proud of.

We celebrate Veteran’s Day on November 11th. We have this holiday, we have democracy, because generations of people were willing to kill, to be maimed, or to die that we might live. The holiday was originally called Armistice Day because the hostilities of World War I closed at 11 a.m. November 11, 1918, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The treaty ending the “war to end all wars” was signed in 1919. An even bloodier, uglier war erupted 20 years later.

One year my husband and I visited the bridge on a late autumn day. No one else was there, the obelisk erected to commemorate “The shot heard round the world” stood silent, and I looked to my left at the stone that marked the British dead. I realized two things. First, it did not just honor them, two men were buried there. (The third soldier was buried in the town center, possibly because he was injured at the bridge and died later.) Second, small red paper poppies were bright against the muted colors of soil and stone and tree.

Armistice Day is known as Remembrance Day in Britain. The poppies, as brightly red as the blood of the men who died by the thousands in Flanders’ fields, mark the fact the dead are remembered, they are honored. They did not die in vain though many were buried without a name.

I don’t know who brought the poppies to Concord that year, but I hope in some way the men buried there know they were not forgotten. The three men, all privates in an infantry regiment, have names, James Hall, Thomas Smith and Patrick Gray. I don’t know who is buried at the bridge and who in town, but it doesn’t matter. It matters that we remember.

My father once said a war truly ends only when those who lived it are gone, and others can reflect on it, analyze the politics, the warfare, the result. The Revolutionary War is long over, and that makes it easier for me to respect everyone who died. Some were brave, some were constrained by duty, all were probably frightened. A few could not face the challenge and ran. That was undoubtedly true in my father’s war as well, and in every other conflict.

We cannot look at war with reflection because so many wars are going on. Some we know because we have troops there and action is covered by our media. Others are fought in more remote areas that aren’t in the media’s focus. The racial, religious, and political reasons that drive men, women, and children to kill men, women, and children have no language, yet are the same in every language.

There is an “Us,” and we are right, and there is a “Them.” They are not only in the wrong but usually vilified in language that makes them less than human. It is easier to kill someone less human than you, at least until night comes and you hear their cries, see their blood, and know that ultimately you do not fight for a cause, although you pray yours is right, you fight for one another.

In respect for my father, for everyone who did, does, or will fight for other people to be free and to live in safety, I bow my head. Today it is in sorrow. Perhaps, one day, it will be because we see that war will truly end, not in the silence of mass death, but in a living peace.

Until then, every day is remembrance day.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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Milestone. 10,000 Friends in our Facebook Community.

Seven years ago I started a Facebook page ( @healingwoman ) for pieces written for friends and shared on a website designed to help people deal with medical challenges. We started with 8 people. Last weekend, we passed 10,000. Next year there will probably be more people in the Internet community (especially when you add those of you who read this blog) than my town.

How did I become HealingWoman? I always dreamed of becoming a doctor. Four months after I got my MD degree a car kicked a big piece of construction debris into my head, and in that moment 20 years of dreams died. I was not a doctor and would not be again. I became a patient, a woman starting to live with brain injury, post-traumatic epilepsy, and a lengthening list of related problems.

I have lived far longer trying to piece together new dreams than I grew up fixated on one major goal: to become a doctor, to help find cures for cancer, to make a difference one person at a time.

When I was well enough after the accident, I worked in medical publishing, then college-level science texts, and finally as a freelance writer. I began writing patient advocacy pieces around the time I got pregnant and was laid off from my last position (in short order) and started speaking to groups, sharing tips taught by a medical education and a much more advanced course in navigating medicine as a patient, and then mother of a child with autism.

Over time, I have come to believe we optimize health, but we can find wellness within ourselves by balancing body, mind, and spirit. I write about health conditions and teach skills for piloting that body through medical and social challenges — especially when the mental pilot has to deal with brain-based bodily challenges. I live with short-term memory loss, anxiety, and occasional depression, on top of visual loss, balance challenges, and a damaged spine.

It was in balancing mind and body that I regained with adult conviction the faith that had driven my childhood dream, the teachings of the men and women whom I saw serving others in a variety of ways as I grew up. I grew up among scholarly men and active women, women, whom, as my grandmother would say “pray with their hands full.”

My son turned 22 years old this spring. He reads at fifth grade level, knows the release date for every upcoming childrens’ movie, and has memorized the answers to game shows that I once casually pulled from memory. He is sweet, impulsive, occasionally aggressive, and yet is the first to say “Please, Thank you, or I’m sorry,” as appropriate.

He has the same strong chin that I thought was unfeminine in myself until I realized it was the same chin I admired in my father and my Great-Aunt Rose, who believed I was special before I imagined I could be.

We are all special. We start life with a spurt of birth fluid and then travel in the same way water rolls inexorably toward the sea. Sometimes our dreams propel us in a straight course. Sometimes we crash on rocks, even if we make no mistake, and have to find a way to set out all over again.

Life is what is comes of dreams and chance and circumstance, of luck and peace and war and disease and accident.

Even as waters are sometimes turbulent, life is an ever-changing set of dreams fulfilled, dreams deferred, and dreams that need to be reconfigured for someone else to achieve.

Our lives, like flowing water, are both continuous and ever changing second to second to second. As I have grown older and been privileged to share the lives of so many special people, I have thought more about the effect my life, my water’s force, has on others.

I never want to find out my gush of ego, anger, or fear eroded someone else from proud rock to tiny pebble. I want to be the guiding force that softens rough edges and helps to reveal the beauty underneath each person’s surface.

Most of all, I want to continue to travel with the peace that comes from knowing I will eventually, as all streams will, meet the sea.

When I do, when we do, we will look back at a splendid journey, all our own, whether it was long or short, gentle or stormy.

We will see the lives our dreams became………………

Join us as we manage ability, disability, and possibility together in a nourishing stream born of thousands of the best of our dreams.

That is how we change the world, one person, one interaction at a time.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ © HealingWoman

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Mind. Disability and Public Safety III. Preparing for the unexpected emergency.

The first step toward surviving an emergency is to be aware one can occur and to become ready for the possibility. This guidance is for everyone who goes into a public setting, either well known or new, but it is especially helpful for people with a disability or who travel with someone whose disability may complicate response to an emergency.

Natural disasters, small-scale crimes, terrorist attacks, and accidents all occur in public settings. In the moment order dissolves in violence or panic, it does not matter what the cause of the emergency is — It matters that you respond in the way most likely to keep you safe.

For instance, there was a recent case of a car driven into a crowd in a busy, public space. This time it was not terrorism, but an impaired driver. Within a week, there was a mass shooting that was a planned crime on a large scale, even though the exact reason remains a mystery.

When I listened to analysts on TV discuss the two incidents, several things stood out, so I want to put them online for people to consider. Start retraining your brain for emergency by thinking about these two things:

1. In a public setting, most people flee by retracing their steps. This is often NOT the smartest choice.

Form the habit of scanning maps and diagrams before you go to new parts of a city, to attractions, or to public entertainment venues. You can make a mental agility test of the task.
Establish possible exits as you move from the entrance to your seat or area. If you have a disability (we are an elevator family because my son and I have mobility issues; I currently use a cane or walker to go any distance), note the exits that you will be able to use. Sometimes it may not be a public means, but a freight elevator (although not if there is fire. Avoid mechanical devices then).

2. Apparently, despite what most of us know, we still hesitate too long to do something positive, whether it is look for an escape or even duck behind cover.

An analysis after a plane crash found that most people, after the plane landed, did not immediately get up and move toward an exit or the opening in the fuselage. Instead, they began to gather belongings, including overhead luggage.

A man who survived the subsequent fire said he lived only because his seat was near the place the plane had cracked open, and someone behind him pushed him outside so they could escape.
I am one of the people who always pays attention to safety demonstrations and I tend to read the brochures on craft safety (although I tend to disinfect them first).
Again, if only as a mental agility game, think through how many rows separate you from the exit in a plane, train, or subway, and how you might quickly grab a sweater or other clothing for protection if needed before getting up and moving.

You can also improve your mental resilience, the ability to break habit quickly and intelligently, by making some other games part of your daily life.

Do not always walk on the same side of the street. (You are generally safest if you are facing oncoming traffic.) Take different routes when you walk or drive places.

If you walk through a shopping mall, as I often do for exercise, pay attention to the different exits, emergency exits and storage doors, and other avenues that could allow you to leave promptly in an emergency or at least leave the public area.

Preparing for simple changes in circumstance can be the first step toward being ready for the true emergency if it comes.

If you or a loved one or client has a disability that can affect memory, thought, emotion, or behavior (I had a traumatic brain injury and my son has autism), you probably want to move beyond resilience exercises to true practice drills.

Drills at home for fire, tornado, or other natural disaster are important, especially if someone has a disability. Recheck your physical layout to make sure it is accessible and safe for anyone with a temporary (broken leg, for instance) or long-term disability.

Drills in public serve the same purpose of preparation. Because you have more control at home if there is a tornado or other weather warning, practice both at home and in different public places.

Any person who has challenges with thinking, response time, emotion, or behavior can be overwhelmed by the unexpected. We have used “flexible” as an adjective with Joseph since he was very small… flexible meaning he can accept a car route that is not the usual, walk in a different pattern, or eat at a different place in a food court.

Imagine your challenge as a caregiver, especially when you consider your personal needs too, if a true emergency comes up. My mother died from dementia. I can imagine that if I had taken her shopping while she was moderately impaired and there were a fire, she would have frozen, refused to go in a store, and informed me “But we never shop there.”

Drill at the places you go to often, starting with the most typical environments (not busy or particularly noisy, making only a slight modification to your routine) and working toward a sudden, no-warning “Let’s Go” in a crowded, stimulating environment (always making sure you don’t panic those around you who aren’t practicing).

I hope you never find yourself in an emergency, but many will. My husband and his best friend were walking with me in the city (I was acting as historical guide) when a car sped by, kicking up the block of paving that produced my traumatic brain injury and ended my training as a doctor.

Neither had any clue what to do. When I was conscious, I told them to help me to the car and take me to my hospital.

Things change in the blink of an eye. Be ready.

The first two articles in this series are available in the NOTES section on our Facebook page and in the archive of healingwomanblog.net.

Any thoughts or feedback? Please let me know.

Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman

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