Staying Grounded at 10,000 Feet

I have never really been above sea level in my life. Raised in Connecticut, spending my formative years in Massachusetts, and now attending medical school in Maine, my toes have always been within a 15-minute journey to the ocean. Telluride, Colorado, sits far above this elevation, at around 9,000 feet.

Altitude change is no joke. During my first day in Colorado, I felt tingling in my fingers, a headache, and exhaustion, which I attributed to my 8-hour journey. But what makes the altitude sickness and the journey worthwhile is the utterly unbelievable landscape. Standing at the sea, you can never imagine the shocking reality of mountains piercing the sky. You can never imagine just how vast and beautiful the vertical world can be.

During our third day in Telluride, many of the students and faculty took a traditional six-and-a-half mile hike up the mountain to a waterfall. This was a completely amazing experience. Standing on top of the rocks, overlooking miles of pine trees, you feel like you are on top of the world. No one else can touch you up there. You can reach up and practically touch the heavens.

Settling back into our studies on patient safety, I realize that the feelings that I had while standing at 10,000 feet above sea level are not unlike many of those in healthcare. It is easy to feel as though you are standing at the top of a Colorado mountain, day in and day out. Nothing else, and no one else, is relevant, or can penetrate your own thoughts. You, and you alone, can see what is below you. Only you can understand. You look down on the patient and can see things clearly, because you are the only one standing from your perspective.

It is very easy to feel this way. I have seen many healthcare professionals fall into this trap. Patients are secondary only to our own thoughts and desires. We are not a small appearance in their lives, but they are a visitor in our hospital. They are a tool, which allows us to demonstrate our own skills and expertise. They do not run the healthcare system; they are only subject to it.

How very wrong we all are. It is only when you stand at the top of a Colorado mountain and take a moment not only to look down, but to look above and beside you, that you can clearly see reality. I cannot touch the heavens from atop Mountain Village any easier than if I were standing in Bar Harbor, Maine. As I stood overlooking the beautiful mountain pass, I looked up to see those who had plunged on ahead of me, and swiveled to see my colleagues and friends standing beside me, smiling.

Patients are not merely objects that enter the healthcare arena in order to please us. Patients are the heart and soul of healthcare. They are the reason that healthcare exists. It is this fact that must ground us in reality. We must remember why we all hiked up the mountain. It is not only for ourselves, but for all of those around us, so that we can gain greater perspective together.