Becoming Bruce

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Warren Buffet

I spent all my adult-life, learning what it meant to be a doctor. At 50 years old, convinced of my position in the world, I had the Rod of Asclepius tattooed on my right bicep, symbolising a lifetime’s dedication to practising medicine. My professional identity, constructed over time through family, personal and educational experiences, defined who I was. 

On the 16th September, 2018 that life was destroyed.

I introduce myself as “brain-damaged” if I am feeling particularly reckless. I have to be ever-vigilant for random bursts of euphoria, when nothing is off limits to say or do. 

My wife Anita, watches quietly, gently squeezing a hand, nudging an elbow and finally kicking me under the table, announcing to all that, 

“It’s time to go home”. 

The moody, unpredictable fallout from the head injury for me, is “exactly like her menopause” says Anita. 

Pathologically reckless as I may be, even I wouldn’t publicly support that ungenerous characterisation of brain injury patients, or indeed women of a certain age.

An ever-generous, dyslexic friend, texted late during one sleepless night, to reassure Anita,

“Don’t worry about Bruce’s ‘Brian’ injury”, he wrote, “I’m sure he won’t end up a ‘vegetarian’”.

Anita and I have shared much more of our lives than perhaps we might have chosen. The crash ended my career, tearing me away from my professional community. One year later, COVID locked us even more uncomfortably together, highlighting the decade of uncomfortable relative isolation from the UK. 

I used to say that there was nothing special about us doctors. That it was the human beings that we work with, the patients and their families, who provided the inspiration, the joy and the sorrow that shapes our lives and moulds our identities. I still think that’s true, but there’s more to it than the apparent feigned modesty. 

“What else now?” I hear you ask, already slightly troubled by my self-importance.

To my deep personal shock, I think that I have become an optimist. I’m not suggesting that transition was instantaneous, but the final 2 steps, the crash and COVID have seen me home.

It turns out, that witnessing so many stories of hope and tragedy, despair and joy, has prepared me for the dark days that we all face from time to time.

I’m not a fluffy, “life’s all fabulous” optimist. I have seen too much in other’s lives, and more recently in my own, to ignore the fact that things can definitely go wrong. Mine is an expert’s realism, tied up with a patient’s optimism. 

“The only thing that is certain, is uncertainty” and we all have to live with that. 

Make no mistake, we don’t have to like what we get all the time, but by constantly adding to our lives, contributing to others, we improve our chances of things working out. 

 “Everything is possible, but some things are more probable than others”. 

Hence we improve our odds of winning, through believing that we can succeed. 

How do we prepare then, for the inevitable bumps in the road?

Research tells us that the final stage of grief is accepting whatever has befallen us. That is not to like it, nor to be able to consciously decide when acceptance occurs. Rather it is to acknowledge that it happened and move forwards, remembering the difficult and the sweet times as memories, existing indelibly in our pasts. 

We must remember the good and the bad, just not relive them everyday. That way we can anticipate better things coming along and difficult things passing us by. Even if we are stuck with our loss or our disability, we will learn to cope and accept.

Despite my terrible accident, I have been spared life in a wheelchair. I still feel guilty for that. Why me? Why survive when most are crippled or die in similar circumstances?

In losing my career at the peak of my powers, I have been spared the agony and turmoil of COVID in our community our hospitals and ICUs. 

I am truly the lucky one.

I have awoken to a glorious new world. I can’t quite remember myself, how I used to feel, but I do recall my experiences as a doctor and I now have the privilege of time to consider them. I can’t tell anyone else what they should do, or think. I can only share what I have seen and done.

Does each one of us have to ride into our own metaphorical lamppost, to find hope, optimism for the future? I don’t think so.

Helen Keller once wrote,

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

For all of us who live this life with all its trials, laughs and tears, I hope the blog makes some sense and offers a path to find hope and joy in the future.

Bruce Powell

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