Lessons from the ER

My entire world is a fiery hue, like a sunset over the Egyptian desert. My eyes are searing with an incandescent chemical burn. I am having trouble breathing and can’t speak coherently, and yet we are sitting in a parked car, waiting for my sociable sister to finish talking to her friends. Pepper spray is the weapon I used on myself on this day. Self-inflicted? Yes. Intentional? No. I was only eight. But, it was just as painful as if a veteran riot-squad officer had tried to take me down. This was the most excruciating pain I had ever felt – easily outdone later but, at the time, a galvanizing, teachable moment. The message? Do not look straight down the barrel.

I doubt that my eclectic collection of ER visits is unique. But, I don’t actually know anyone else who has needed surgery to remove a rock from his nose.

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And although this was also self-inflicted, I assure you that it is not indicative of anything more worrisome than a quirky sense of curiosity and an uneven learning pattern. In my further defense, I was only three when I found the rock that looked like it would fit perfectly in my nose.

The surgery came with little pain, maybe too little, because when my dad came home and asked me how on God’s green earth I managed to get a rock stuck in my nose; I sprinted out to the driveway to find a stone of appropriate size and attempted to do it again. I’m not sure how to verbalize the object of this lesson, but I’ve kept my nose clean ever since.

All this notwithstanding, I would not call myself a klutz. My sister Natasha, one year my senior, seems to almost take pride in holding claim to the family title, and she is world-class. She once came home from a hike with 25 staples suturing a gash in her calf, having managed not only to trip while jogging down the mountain on a class hike (easy enough, I suppose) but to land on the one rock in the White Mountains capable of inflicting that sort of damage. Her ability to handle all of the curveballs she has been thrown inspires me, but I digress.

I have always taken comfort in my athletic abilities, a genetic gift from my parents. My quixotic mother (outdoor enthusiast and glider pilot) and my father (former Navy fighter pilot, soccer coach, and my mentor) provided me with every necessary attribute that I might require to accomplish anything. But I never fully understood the concept of gifts or limitations, and honestly I have tended to be unaware of the amount of work, preparation, and thought that typically precedes a successful venture. At least that’s what my father says. But then he goes to the emergency room almost as often as I do, and for similar reasons, except that one of his trips involved a chain saw mishap. My mother has gone more often than any of us, but frequently on more mysterious trips that I’m not usually invited on.

Like many kids, my childhood idols have been professional soccer stars, basketball players, and freestyle skiers. For me, the problem was that I grew up thinking I would actually do these things. As it turns out, I lacked the greater talents of the skiing wunderkinds around me.

I was a more-than-competent skier. When he was home my dad would pick me up from kindergarten and we would go ski black diamond runs for the afternoon. But I grew up in the ski-town that produced Bode Miller and, I’m pretty sure, several stars of future generations based on the way they are already skiing. A broken arm, finger, thumb, five dislocated vertebrae in my neck, severe migraines, and a couple of concussions have been the reward for my confidence and ambition while participating in “extreme” sports.

Now, I am positive that there were some lessons available about caution, humility, and maybe interpretive physics, however, I’m not sure they were engrained in me as well as they should have been. I left the terrain park that winter thinking all I really needed was a change of venue.

Two weeks later, at a basketball tournament in Vermont, I ended up being taken by stretcher off the floor and to the ER by ambulance, having suffered a minor neck injury and another concussion. I was a smallish 13-year-old and had decided to jump in the way and take a charge from a 15-year-old who turned out to be Wilt Chamberlain’s nephew or some such. I’m not sure he even felt it when he flattened me on his way to the hoop, and I like to think I got the call, but I don’t remember. No surprise there.

Danish physicist Neils Henrik David Bohr said something I find humorous yet inspiring: “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” I have made my mistakes, admittedly, in a rather broad field. My theme here was supposed to have been “lessons learned” and I wanted to paint a picture of a young man who is smart and mature and thrilled to embark on a fresh set of more intellectual ventures in college. However, I’m afraid there is nothing in this essay that suggests I am exceptionally bright, keenly interested in college, or even adequately teachable. But I hope I have shared a bit of who I am with you, and that is what I keep hearing I should attempt on my campus tours.

I would love to play college soccer, and I look forward to enjoying college life in typical ways. But I am even more determined to embark on a life of the mind in a new venue, and with any luck, substitute some of my ER visits with trips to the library.

I started writing this thinking that so many visits to the ER were probably unusual. But it turns out there were nearly 100 million visits to the emergency room just last year. One in four adults went, and there were 38 visits per hundred people. And contrary to the widely held image of people without insurance or means seeking basic care in the ER, half the visits were for people who believed they needed emergency assistance, and the majority of the rest needed care during hours when doctor’s offices were closed. Also, to my surprise, these statistics are very similar across socioeconomic levels.

Notably, people with postgraduate degrees visit the ER least often, and this is the final and perhaps most compelling reason for you to help me on my quest for higher education. And perhaps at some point in this journey, I’ll find the club for students who have been victims of bizarre injuries and I’ll feel right at home.

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