Warm summer nights

It was summer 2006, the days long and the nights warm, and I was an intern, living by the beach and working a rotation in emergency. My memories of this time are like those of childhood holidays, a jumble of sensation and moments, rounded out and glossed by time and nostalgia, but I can say with certainty that it was a golden period.

I was beginning to find my feet within the world of medicine, finally feeling like a real doctor. We were still in the old department in those days, poorly designed and hopelessly undersized for our growing patient load, yet warm and friendly, the glass walled doctor station affectionately known as “the fishbowl” a hive of social activity. My wins were simple things; a growing success rate in IV cannulation, mastering the art of plastering and suturing, independently managing common emergency presentations such as pneumonia and Colles fracture, my first shoulder joint reduction (a modified Kocher technique with traction).

Hours outside work felt like one long holiday. The junior doctor ED roster, weekend and evening heavy, can be a lonely one when everyone else is at work in the depths of a southern state winter. Over summer, however, a 4pm shift start feels like a day off, and a 5.30pm finish leaves hours of daylight. The small unit I shared with two friends was walking distance from both the beach and the pub, ensuring a constant stream of Melbourne guests and an ongoing vibe of festivity.

And then there was surfing, always surfing. Anyone can surf on a Queensland holiday, but there is a distinct joy in punctuating a satisfying day’s work with a splash in the ocean. Surfing alone or with friends, a quick sunrise dip on a still morning before work, or east coast odysseys on runs of days off. Storing my board in the residents’ quarters on hot days to stop the wax melting in the car, leaving nightshift and heading straight to the beach, followed by eggs and a cold beer at a favourite cafe before heading home to sleep. Surely this was a magnificent life.

More summers came and went, and friends moved on. I have no recollection of making a formal decision to stay in both emergency medicine and my home by the beach, it simply became evident I wouldn’t leave. Then a romance led to the intertwining of two lives and blossomed into a family. We all moved into an old house on a large block with glimpses of the ocean from the neglected backyard, and slowly set about making it ours. I am now part of my family unit first, myself second. I drive the same highway to work that I did as an intern, detouring along the coast on my way home to check the surf, but these days I don’t stop. Family, work, study, the house and garden, so many forces keeping me land bound, so many good reasons not to plunge in. Yet it often feels that a little piece of me is missing.

It’s not just the relinquishing of personal freedom I struggle with, but the recurrent little deaths of youthful possibility. Raising a family and completing a formal training program are noble and rewarding pursuits, but they are also ruthless dream slayers. We cannot live all potential lives, and will do ourselves an injustice if we try. I have never lived in Paris for six months and become fluent in french, nor toured the Californian longboard circuit. We all have these, I dare say, the dreams we have let go by yet carry around with us, packed tidily into a secret little backpack.

Nine years have passed and I am working a busy shift on a hot, sticky day, when it feels like the whole state is holidaying in our town. I am well on my way to becoming a competent emergency physician and still love the never ending challenge. My small wins are a smoothly executed intubation, wrestling a rampaging department into submission overnight, pulling off a novel procedure or tactfully solving a disposition issue. We have been in the new department for years now. It was the right move, but at times I still miss the cramped coziness of the old place.

I hear the loudspeaker call of a resus patient, and walk in to see a young man, clad only in boardshorts, sand clinging to his legs, face contorted in pain, gingerly supporting the weight of his left arm. What happened, I ask. He was paddling for a wave and his shoulder just popped out. I enquire as to which break, and it is one of my favourites, a rolling point situated on a scenic bluff, far enough out of town to keep the crowds down. It would be offshore today. For a moment I forget his pain and I am there, on that wave, the sharp sting of spray in my face, weight of water between my fingers, gliding down the face and springing to my feet, my longing so strong I can taste it, like an unexpected mouthful of salty water. How I want to go back to a time when I would arrive at work with grains of sand in my hair, euphoric with surfing and emergency, the two somehow forever wedded for me that first year. The moment passes and I drag myself back to the present, where I belong. I do shoulders differently now. Some nitrous and gentle external rotation with a flexed elbow, and with a sudden clunk the rounded humeral head is also back where it belongs, the procedure familiar and satisfying in my hands.

The next day we take our children to the beach, low tide with a forgiving swell. We rarely battle with a board on family visits any more, the finite resource of adult upper limbs already allocated to towels, buckets, other miscellaneous beach paraphernalia and a rather sturdy toddler whose preferred mode of transport is balanced on my hip, like a chubby-cheeked, divine smelling bag of lead. But today I grab a board from my teenage nephew, and suddenly I am paddling, gliding, standing, trimming, waving enthusiastically to my daughter playing on the shore. I am not that intern girl anymore, nor would I want to be, but for the duration of that wave I capture something of the sense of freedom and possibility of my glorious first summer by the beach, and realise that perhaps it is play that is the missing element in my crowded life these days. And as I drive down the highway to work this evening, window down, breathing in the warm summer night, I will be thinking of that wave, all that came before, and the many more still to come.

Old letter

Literary Medicine


Emergency physician and keen follower of #FOAMed | @KristinJBoyle | LinkedIn

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