A Trip to the Emergency Room

I love doing yard work. It’s a chance to be outside, move my body, and connect with nature. My many garden beds bring me joy. Gardening is a wonderful mindfulness practice. Yet I’m equally happy to mow lawn, clean brush, and trim hedges. On Saturday, while Mark raced his sailboat on Long Lake, I embarked on an afternoon of yard work.

A large evergreen tree by our house needed trimming, which required a ladder, hedge trimmers, and a hand saw. Buoyed by my Tough Mudder experience, an initial thought of “I should wait for Mark to get some of these branches,” turned into, “no way, I can do this,” and I did. I wasn’t rushed. It was steady and satisfying work.

Next came the front-yard bushes. I use electric hedge trimmers to sculpt them, being careful with the cord and my hands. I was almost done with this whole process, at the last shrub, when I didn’t pay attention. In fact, I’m not sure what happened. I was low to the ground, right hand picking up the trimmer and pushing the power button, while my left hand was too close, and bam: I felt pain in my fingers, stopped the trimmers, and yelled my favorite swear word three times, while gathering my hand into my shirt.

For a moment, I wondered, “Did that just happen?” Yes, it did, and I needed a plan. Mark was gone, I was scared, my shirt was bloody, and I needed to act. My first instinct: The Breeds! (an amazing family of 5 who live across the street). I knocked on their door, and when Ellie, their oldest daughter answered, I calmly asked, “Hi. Is one of your parents at home?” She said, “Yeah. Hey Dad, Joy’s at the door.” Then I heard Dan inside, “Joy! Come on in.” I paused, “I’m not sure you want me inside, I cut my hand with the hedge trimmers and I’m bleeding quite a bit.” 

Immediately, team Breed went into action. Dan: “Okay, what are you thinking? Emergency room? We can take you right now.” (There was some discussion on this, as neither Dan nor I wanted to look at my wound, but I decided this deserved a trip to the ER.) Morgan, the second-oldest daughter, offered to get my purse from our house. Ellie got me water and an extra towel for my hand. Dan gathered his backpack (he was working on his Sunday sermon) and Ellie asked, “Can I come with you?” I immediately said “yes,” and also asked why. She explained that she might want to be a doctor or nurse. I smiled, “That’s great. Let’s go.”

So, Dan, Ellie, and I spent quality time together in an unexpected way. Dan stayed in the waiting room, finishing his sermon (during which he had a conversation that became the example he needed for his message). Ellie eagerly agreed to stay with me the whole time, watching the nurse and physician’s assistant work, and talking with me during the lulls. 

I experienced and stayed present to my fear: What is the state of my finger? During previous vegetable-chopping accidents, I could easily assess the damage. But this accident involved jagged, electric-saw teeth, and I felt unsettled and scared. When the nurse asked to look at my hand, I hesitated and confessed, “I know it’s strange, but this scares me the most: showing you the damage; opening my hand.” She smiled and said, “Yes, but I need to clean it.” Of course, I agreed, but I also said, “I can’t watch any of this,” so I looked at Ellie and talked with her about swimming and school.

And that was the worst part: Confronting the grand fears in my mind. I didn’t force myself to watch what was happening, but I trusted in the hospital staff and in my own courage and strength. The P.A. told me what would happen: get an x-ray, numb the nerves (which may be painful), and then stitch up my finger, which had a jagged cut. Game on. This is something I could do: be calm, mindful, and strong. So, we settled into an easy conversation, asking Travis (the P.A.) if I really needed to come to the ER, Ellie wondering what led him to a medical career, and Dan (who joined us post sermon-writing) inquiring about the percentage of ER visits that involve drugs or alcohol.

Before he began stitching, Travis remarked, “Looks like you hit an artery, so we need to take some extra steps.” At that point, he said it was good that I’d come to the ER, and Ellie got to watch him sew off my artery (afterward, she exclaimed, “That was so cool!”). We also heard his response to Dan: “With overdoses and accidents, it’s probably 20% of cases that involve drugs or alcohol. That doesn’t surprise me, because I trained in Chicago. What does surprise me is the amount of mental illness and depression. Someone comes in for stomach pain they can’t describe and when I ask questions, I realize they might be suicidal.” These were short snippets we received between procedures, but they were powerful. A sobering reminder of how difficult life is for so many people. Difficult in ways we can’t even imagine and often choose to ignore.

After our drive home, I gave my support crew big hugs and deep thanks. Then it was back to ordinary life. Mark was still gone, so I finished trimming the last bush (with extreme care) and mowed the lawn. As I mowed the lawn, still processing our ER trip, I felt three things: Grateful that my finger only needed 4 stitches, appreciative of the care and support from neighbors, and thankful for my overall mental and physical health (as well as the many resources I have to attend to them). 

It’s easy to fall into autopilot, especially when life is busy, stressful, and hectic. We can take people and life circumstances for granted. Yet we never know when things will change; when things might fall apart. Though it’s not helpful to dwell in fear about the future, it is helpful to practice gratitude: appreciation for small and ordinary or big and amazing moments in our lives; appreciation for supportive, loving people that surround us; appreciation for basic acts of kindness. This isn’t a practice in denying or ignoring what’s difficult and painful. It’s a practice in honoring what’s good in our lives, even if that good feels like a small sliver.

On Saturday, I experienced pain, fear, strength, kindness, community, and healing. If I were homeless, alone, mentally ill, or depressed, likely the day would have gone very differently. This gives me great pause. And it also cultivates understanding and compassion. Strange as it sounds, I’m grateful for my trip to the emergency room. It opened my eyes and heart in new ways.