A few weeks ago, I bought my first ever comfy-yet-sleek-semi-fitted-always-dry-performance Under Armour sweater for those long cold nights in the Emergency Room. Black, with holes in the sleeves for my thumbs, and my institution’s logo on the front, I had a shield to brave the ER, a shield I felt I needed so desperately.
Last Sunday, back on the wards and working in a windowless room while a gorgeous Fall day was unfolding two doors away, a fellow intern and I took advantage of a quiet moment to sit outside in the playground – perk of being in a children’s hospital – and eat lunch. It was warm and sunny. I took of my Under Armour sweater that I had put on at 5:30am before heading in to work. A little guy made his way over to us. “Hey guys. Guys!” he said. We said hey back. He told us his name. We told him ours. He told us his age. We didn’t tell him ours. He told us that “the teenagers were coming and he was going to destroy them.”
He had a hospital armband around his wrist. A simple seatbelt across his lap secured him to an armless wheelchair. He rolled over to a bush, grabbed some leaves, came back over to us, crushed the leaves and said something about how they were weapons against the teenagers. I encouraged him, I tasked him with saving us, even though I had no idea what fantasy was unfolding inside his shaved head. For the next half hour he wheeled himself back and forth, checking in with us, still in character, still fighting the imaginary teenagers. I suddenly realized my pager had gone off twice. I put my Under Armour back on and headed back to the windowless room, my eyes unable to adjust after being in the sun.
I was dying to look up his medical records. Was he paralyzed? Was he a cancer patient? Did he have surgery? Was he in remission? Why was he outside (seemingly) alone? But he wasn’t my patient. And he was so much more than a patient. He was a kid having a grand time on the playground. He came to meet us, he talked to us, he shared his play fantasy with us. He simply was himself – wheel chair, illness, imagination and all. No shield, no armor, no distinction between all the many parts that make him who he is. Authenticity makes for the richest of interactions.
So whenever I put on my Under Armour, I think of him. I think of the energy poured into hiding under a sweater, putting on a brave face, or keeping a safe distance, when it is so much simpler to be show our true face — flaws, qualities, fears, and all. And so much more rewarding.
Time to come out of hiding and play.