This is an overarching edit to the original “Controlled Descent” post I made a few days ago (linked below). I originally wrote the post because it had been a while, and I’d been struggling to come up with something unique, but relatable. After reading the original post, I wasn’t happy with it for a number of reasons. Most of all, because it did a crummy job of conveying how we connect to our partner communities, even when we’re not physically there. As I’m constantly reminded, time creates perspective, and I should have taken a bit more to write. So this is an attempt to make a little more sense…
I wrote about a canyoneering trip a few weeks ago, where my friend, Joe, almost fell 40 feet while descending a rope. I was able to stop his descent, but he still slipped 8 feet. 8 feet doesn’t seem like much, especially in comparison to the 270 ft rappel he was on, but it was scary as hell for Joe, and pretty horrifying to watch from below. I was able to pull hard enough on the rope below to slow his descent, but it still took a few seconds of falling before that happened. I originally wrote in great detail about how it was terrifying for both the falling guy (Joe), and the Joe-catcher (me). I tried to draw similarities between the people we work with in Haiti and watching my friend fall down a rope. In my opinion, it’s too contrived and simply isn’t comparable to the immense poverty that people live in everyday. That being said, the canyon incident did demonstrate that brief moments can have more gravity than expected.
I was reminded of this a few nights ago in the ER. I had a patient in respiratory distress from pneumonia, and she eventually had to be intubated. After an hour and a half of relative stability on the ventilator, her oxygen saturation decreased dramatically over 2 minutes. I had been with her for several hours already, and had gotten to know her and her husband fairly well. Her husband was very supportive and extremely cooperative with all of our requests, so I had made sure to include him in as much of the care as possible. When she started circling the drain, I had asked him to step out of the room for a moment so I had more room to work. I started manually ventilating her and calmly called for more help. Almost as soon as other staff came to help, I noticed dramatic EKG changes, and yelled for the code cart. I had looked out of the room to see where it was, and locked eyes with my patient’s husband. He had tears streaming down his face and fidgeted, an involuntary reaction to the helplessness and frustration he was experiencing. Eventually, we stabilized the patient enough to get her up to the ICU, where she later coded and passed away. I realized that their lifetime together was suddenly replaced by this moment of terror and despair.
I don’t mean to compare a friend slipping on a rope to the loss of a loved one, but both events demonstrate how fear and despair can shape our experiences. A day can be remembered by its worst minutes, and a lifetime can be overshadowed by loss. If only the briefest of moments can carry so much weight, then we have the opportunity to alleviate suffering with small acts. It is a complex and daunting task, but one with enormous potential to improve the lives of others. So we will continue to support projects of all sizes, because even the smallest act of compassion can help define a lifetime.
Thanks for reading,
A few weeks ago, I descended a canyon in our local Superstition Mountains with 4 friends. For those unfamiliar with the Superstition Mountains (or Supes as they’re lovingly referred to), they’re a wilderness area that’s surprisingly rugged relative to its close proximity to civilization. In the years I’ve spent exploring the Supes, I’ve felt a nearly mystical connection to the area. It takes less than an hour of hiking to be completely removed from everyone and surrounded by steep canyon walls. It’s the kind of place that forces perspective on you, and using ropes to stumble down a steep and overgrown canyon, only added to the experience.
After 2 hours of scrambling up scree and cactus to find our way to the top of the canyon, we took a break and threw on our harnesses before heading down the canyon. Few people have ever been down the canyon we were in, so the overgrowth was almost impassible. On several occasions, I found myself stuck in a tree, struggling to break free from branches that had lodged themselves in my most private of places. After what seemed like an eternity of trees molesting us, we made it to our first rappel point. It was a 250 foot rappel off of a boulder, and I was the first to go down.
About half of the last 40 foot of the rappel was free hanging, so it required a little finesse to not swing around wildly. I waited at the bottom, and after a few minutes, I heard my friends at the top yell that Patrick was coming down. Patrick had only rappelled once before, so I was hanging on to the rope at the end so that I could stop his descent if he made a mistake (a fireman’s belay). Patrick made it to the free hang and did a weird horizontal spin. As he dangled above, floppy-baby-like, unable to lower himself, we laughed and I talked him through how to get situated. He made it down without any injuries and was no worse for wear. Next up was Joe. Joe’s a wildland firefighter and a pretty rugged guy, but didn’t have a lot of experience on rappels. Joe was also the biggest in our group, outweighing me by about 60 pounds. As Joe was coming down the rappel, he was coming down slowly, but it was clear that he was having to put in a lot of effort to control his descent. It turns out he didn’t have enough friction in his belay device, and was working pretty hard to brake himself. Just before he got to the free hanging portion, he slipped on the rope. I saw it happen, so I pulled hard from the bottom to stop him, but since he’s a bigger guy, it wasn’t enough. A second later I jumped backwards off the 2 foot high rock I was on and he came to a stop on the rope. All of this took about 4 seconds, but he managed to slip about 8 feet. He did the same baby spin that Patrick had done, and a moment later lowered himself down. Joe had a decent rope burn on his hand and was pretty jazzed from the adrenaline rush. I was pretty amped up as well, having just watched one of my best friends almost drop on to a pile of rocks. Joe was keeping it cool, but was obviously shook up, so I did my nursing thing, and acted like everything was totally cool, while I checked him out and tried to explain what happened. It was the minutes following the 5 seconds of terror that were enlightening.
For Joe, he’d felt control of his life quite literally slip through his hands. He knew he was ok, but the fear hadn’t vanished as soon as he was safe. We had miles to go and more rappels before we were safely back to the truck, and it sat a little heavier in his mind than it had before. For me, it had been an instant where I felt helpless. My initial reaction to a falling friend, was futile and the instantaneous guilt, fear, and anxiety was still present in my mind. Writing this now, it all seems a bit melodramatic, but it was so real that I can feel my pulse rising just from the memory. Thankfully, we all made it out in one piece, with only minor injuries and slightly soiled briefs.
The days following the trip, I kept thinking that we’re pretty fortunate to have so much control over our lives and well-being. I’ve met people who live in such poverty that fear and anxiety have to be faced everyday. While we were helpless for a brief moment, many of my friends in Haiti live without the means to control anything but their most basic needs. On my last trip to Haiti, I met a family that couldn’t transport their sick father down the mountain because they wouldn’t have time to harvest what little corn was left in their garden (picture below). Their choices were heavier than anything we’d experienced in the canyon, and I still shudder when I remember the way I felt.
In the past, I’ve mentioned that empowering people means giving them the chance to take control of their lives. Like my friend slipping on the rope, many of the people we work with are struggling to keep control, so we’ll be there to keep the ground from creeping up too fast.