Tuesday, March 11, 2014

One Step, One Breath

My climbing partners and I were high up on the Emmons Glacier, making a summit attempt on Mount Rainier. The weather was starting to come in so we were trying our best to climb quickly. But try as we might, and even though we were teenagers in good physical shape, I could go no faster than one step, one breath. I would take a single step, then pause 10 seconds for a full breath. Over and over again. Then finally, the summit. We reached it just in time for us to have a safe descent.

I was a teenager at the time, and this accomplishment was very satisfying. I had learned that persistence, determination, and patience had enabled me to reach what at the time was a big goal. And over the years, this lesson of one step, one breath has helped me keep going even when faced with great difficulty.

Then, as an intern at Duke University, the lesson of Mount Rainier took on an entirely different meaning. One day in clinic, I saw my first patient of the afternoon walk down the hall of the clinic. He was an elderly gentleman of about 83 and was moving very slowly. I barely noticed him at first, but then something clicked. He was taking one step, one breath.

When we had a chance to talk in the exam room, he was full of life. Although clearly he was physically weak, his conversation was energetic. Enthusiastically, he talked about a trick he had recently taught his dog. In many ways, he had just climbed his personal Mount Rainier, just getting from his home to his car, then from the car to the waiting room, then from the waiting room to the clinic. He clearly struggled physically, but he didn't seem to notice. With a smile on his face, he taught me the finer points of dog training all while I finished up his exam. Then he was gone.

Although he was a memorable patient, I soon started noticing how many of my other patients were also only able to take one step before having to pause for a full breath. They might have heart disease, or lung disease, or terrible arthritis, but the net effect was great physical difficulty accomplishing some of the most basic tasks of daily living. Their physical bodies were weakening in spite of the best medical care on earth. In some, the spirit also seemed to be worn down, but what most fascinated me was how others could somehow keep their spirit intact and their will to live strong in spite of an inevitable decline in physical health.

What was one step, one breath all about for them? Their truth was much greater than the lesson I learned as a teenager. Their lesson was one of the spiritual realm. I had once thought that patience and determination was the lesson of one step, one breath. But then my patients taught me a greater lesson. My body did the work, but it was my dream that led me to the summit. Although my physical body was exhausted, the goal is what kept me moving forward. Strength of spirit is our true strength.