Golden Leaves and Golden Sun

Autumn in Vermont is like a pendulum; it swings between cold rainy days and bright sun that reflects off the yellow, orange, red, and brown leaves soon to fall off the trees. The damp days and frost-laced evenings are a prelude to the winter soon to come. The strong sun on the loveliest days of October is not only a reflection of the summer just past, but also particularly appealing because it contrasts with the brisk wind and cool damp air inherit of autumn.

Earlier this October when the sun looked like a flood of gold as it reflected off the hills, I set out with a friend on an easy, wandering hike through the woods, past beaver dams, and up the tame slopes of a hill with an outstanding view. The shade and wind carried the hint of frost, but the sunlight danced so joyfully through the birch, beech, and maple leaves that I didn’t feel cold while wearing only a light jacket. The pleasantness of the day penetrated through my slight haze. The previous weeks had been a whirlwind of adventure, topped off by working the night shift the night before our hike and running a half marathon with my sister two days earlier. But, as we parked the car and started walking I didn’t feel tired. My mate had kicked in and the day was too charming to pass inside. There’s something about the woods in Vermont…they recharge me more than anywhere else. [Text continues after image.]

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I grew up in Vermont, but moved to the city for college and work and then moved abroad. I’ve been back a few years, enjoying the time until more schooling picks my next home. I imagine, just as I did as a new adult, I have more city turns and many places to live before I sleep for good. I imagine many of those places will be about as different and as far from Vermont as possible on our small planet. While I never really miss the Green Mountain State in its entirety, when I live elsewhere I periodically find myself aching for the quiet woods that always awaits me here.

The woods in the fall are my favorite. Fall is my favorite season in Vermont for its smells—piles of leaves, apple cider, wood smoke, and pumpkin baked goods—and perfect temperatures. The leaves already fallen rustle underfoot and the tangy, earthy smell of the soil and crisp foliage tingles your nose in an only pleasant way. The natural world is getting ready for sleep and a long stretch of harsh weather. The chipmunks and squirrels are in overdrive, jumping about like bunnies with cheeks full of nuts. Wild apples, acorns, cherries, and berries adorn the trees, weighing the branches down and feeding the deer and other woods dwellers. There’s an influx of geese and other migrating birds—their flocks fill the ponds and trees and raise a chorus of excited chatter about their long journey south.

The forests of Vermont aren’t epic like those of California and Washington state. They aren’t misty, exotic, and lavish like the Amazon or the jungles of Central America and Africa. Nor are they tangled and concealing large snakes, jaguars, and anteaters like the forests in Paraguay. In contrast, it’s their humble scale and unassuming beauty that brings thoughts of the Vermont woods, my childhood haunts, to me when I’ve spent too long away. I always know when those thoughts percolate it’s time to visit.

My friend and I paused on the hilltop to enjoy the view and take in a few golden rays before our descent back into the forest. I sat, knees pulled up against my chest, and gazed out over the rolling patchwork of gold, green, and bronze. The stone face on which I sat was slightly warm thanks to the sun. We were shielded from the breeze. No one else was around. There was a quiet that’s forgotten even in the smallest of towns. The calm was a relief after the rush of work in a hospital and traveling for medical school interviews—places full of complicated thoughts and human interaction. In those moments on the hill, I was thankful for the forest. I also felt a pang of bitterness about the cold winter soon to come, but I know (as I’ve said before) that the cold is one thing that keeps people from flooding Vermont. And, anything that keeps the autumn woods here quiet so I can sneak away and meditate on life’s challenges is welcome.

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Name the Fear

My stepmother’s friend used to play a game called “Name the Fear and Conquer It” where she identified things that scared her—like bungee jumping— and then did them. My sister has a philosophy about hesitation: If you hesitate because you don’t like something then it’s okay to abort, but if you hesitate because you’re scared you ought to dig for courage and forge onward.

The above thoughts are good summaries of how I, too, approach undertakings that make me nervous. The difference is that I don’t necessarily seek out thrillers like sky diving. I prefer to look around me so I can maximize normal life, avoid falling into mindless routines (I like to break them when they form), and daydream about the next challenge I’m going to tackle. Here’s an example.

Wrestling uncertainty was something I did when I became an EMT. I distinctly remember my tumultuous beginning. I threw myself into a condensed EMT course, having no clinical background, that moved so fast it didn’t even have lectures. It’s one of the only classes, and the only one since sophomore year of undergrad, that made me cry. I didn’t know if I’d survive the class. I didn’t know if I’d pass the licensing exams. I didn’t know if I’d like running on an ambulance. But, I made an educated guess and decided it was worth the gamble.

At first, I felt uncomfortable touching strangers—a necessity when you’re taking a pulse and blood pressure or doing a physical exam. I had to coach myself to be still and not run away when my classmates practiced taking a pulse on me. Understanding how the lungs and heart worked wasn’t intuitive. And, for my mind, memorizing isn’t enough. I must understand. I spent many hours reading and rewriting notes.

I lived through the class. Some tears, but I mostly just buried my nose in my textbook and practiced as much as I could during our practical classes. Despite my efforts, I failed a few stations of the psychomotor exam (physical skills) the first time I took it. I couldn’t concentrate and I messed up things I knew on several stations. (The traditional student in me came through though, and I passed the computer portion of the exam in one shot). I almost quit after failing the psychomotor exam. But, I asked myself, “If you can’t be an EMT how on earth are you ever going to be a doctor?” I practiced more. I gave myself many pep-talks. I passed everything on my second try because I focus on how much I wanted to start working with patients and how certain I was that I was pushing myself in the right direction.

I was so nervous thinking about starting as an EMT that I can’t recall my voyage to my first EMT shift. Despite my panic, though, running on an ambulance started way better than my EMT class had. My crew captain assured me he wouldn’t let me kill anyone. Further, he and the rest of the crew went above and beyond to show me the ropes (well, actually, they showed me the tubes, the gadgets, the bandages, and all the other gear that fills the numerous nooks of an ambulance). Time would show that I enjoyed being on an ambulance. I loved the puzzle of figuring out what was wrong with patients and how to treat their condition. I loved chatting with patients when there was nothing to be done but ride to the hospital. Patients almost always have amazing life stories to tell.

About a year after becoming an EMT, I took another leap. I left my communications job—my undergrad degree was in communications—and dove professionally into health care. I began working as an EMT in the emergency department. Yet, despite the major change, this professional jump wasn’t scary like my EMT class had been. During my first couple of months on the job, I learned a ton of new skills like how to place IVs. While I wasn’t an expert at anything new right away, I knew I’d get there if I focused and practiced. My EMT course proved that.

EMTing pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. This surprised me because I have a wide comfort zone. After all, I’ve moved and built a life in two completely new countries (once as a student and once as a Peace Corps volunteer) and I’ve moved from the country to the city and the city to the country–which is to say I’m comfortable with change. I think the hands-on work and using assessment to inform treatment of living beings challenged me most when I started learning clinical skills. However, I’m so glad I pushed through the bumpy beginning of my career in health care delivery because medicine is the most fulfilling professional pursuit I’ve undertaken to date.

It’s easy to avoid things we’re bad at because they make us uncomfortable. But, as I told myself many times leading up to round two of the EMT exam, if everything was easy then life would be boring. With that, I leave you with a quote from Amelia Earhart:

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”