The car seat of life

While stuck in an angry snarl of traffic during another grey morning commute, I had time to contemplate the view from the car’s rear-view mirror. If this was the “family car” then the back seat would be decorated with children’s toys and crayons. It might be messy, but would reflect adventure and discovery and excitement. Instead, my commuter vehicle had two neglected child seats. In contrast, on the front passenger seat there was a horror show of adult mess and misgivings. I couldn’t help but think the universe was trying to tell me something. Welcome to lessons from the car seat of life. 

I had ricocheted through a busy run of clinical shifts. The faces of the many patients I had cared for still occupying my mind. Over the past week I felt I had done my bit for humanity. However, while you can largely leave the patients at the hospital, it is the “curse of extra tasks” that follows you home. We want to help the greater mission and therefore we volunteer left and right. However, every “sorry to bother you but…” and “can you just help out for a sec” adds up and takes away. So I covered a locum shift here, attended a meeting there, tried to co-write a paper, delivered extra teaching, and squeezed in a conference call or two, or three. The resulting early arrivals and late departures could be tallied in the lines under my eyes. We might recognize the toll of overwork in our morning mirror, but this time it was writ large in the passenger seat to my right. 

Instead of a lovely conversant human sitting next to me on my drive, let me describe the detritus of my week and the self-recrimination that followed:

–      Fast food wrappers: one for every meal and beverage shoved or guzzled. Was I reduced to such low-grade fuel just to keep my engine going?  

–      A mobile phone charger and cable: my lifeline to the world which I scrambled to recharge after my phone died. How long had I lived with the spectre of being called back at all hours and never really getting away.

–      A mouldy apple core: a vain attempt to reach my five-a-month let alone five-a-day. What does it say when you don’t eat right and don’t clean up compost? 

–      A chocolate bar wrapper: a “pick me up” because of missed meals and lousy sleep. Can you really make up for lost sleep and time?

Some of your car seats may look like this all the time—and perhaps that is fine. I am not here to moralize only to reflect. The point is that mine is normally empty and clean and as uncluttered as my mind. This state of affairs was not normal. It could just as easily have been a blinking light on the dash. I really shouldn’t ignore this, but who has the time? Perhaps it is more accurate to admit that I had temporarily forgotten my priorities.

There may be other areas of your own life screaming out a warning. My polite suggestion is that you dedicate time and space to listen. For example, does your refrigerator routinely contain food well past its sell by date? Are you wardrobe hangers empty because your clothes are conducting a protest on the bedroom floor? Do you climb over unopened mail by your front door? Do you routinely forward yourself emails because you can’t bring yourself to deal with them now. This is not piety, and I am not suggesting that cleanliness is next to godliness. Instead the issue is that modern life may leave you feeling that you no longer have time for general maintenance or self-care. When you get so distracted that you fail to do what is now known as “adulting”. These routine chores used to be the cornerstone of everyday life. Clean your shoes, brush your hair, and tidy your room. Get the little things right and the rest will follow. 

The following week, I tidied up my car seat of shame. I also tried to hit reroute. I cancelled a meeting, I turned down a locum shift, I excused myself from a conference call, and I got a half decent sleep. Small steps but at least I felt a little more in control. My car seat was clean and my life was a little manageable. I then borrowed the family car and threw the kids in the back seats. We headed out for a quick adventure that coincided with the route that I cover on my morning commute. The kids made a shocking mess of the back of the car. In contrast to feeling distress, it felt like a clean start and a fresh perspective. I have a way to go but am getting better at enjoying the journey.   

Matt Morgan, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Cardiff University, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine and Research and Development lead in Critical Care at University Hospital of Wales, and an editor of BMJ OnExamination. He is on twitter: @dr_mattmorganMatt’s first book, Critical—science and stories from the brink of life is available to order now

Peter Brindley, Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Medical Ethics, Anesthesiology at University of Alberta, Canada. He is on twitter @docpgb

Disclosures/conflicts: none. This work is original

Hay Festival 2019

We had a great time at the Hay Festival this year. I am so grateful to The Baroness Finlay of Llandaff who chaired my event fantastically.

For those who were not able to come, the talk can be seen here.

10 Questions from the Hay Festival

Here is a quick interview that I did at the Hay Book festival the original link is here.

Matt Morgan’s Critical is an intelligent, compelling and profoundly insightful journey into the world of intensive care medicine and the lives of people who have forever been changed by it. We asked him our 10 questions and here is what he had to say.

1. What are you in Hay to talk about?

My new book Critical which is all about the most terrifying, the most wonderful, the most complex, yet the most simple place in the hospital – the intensive care unit (ICU). 

I say simple because we use complex technology and cutting-edge science to give patients just one thing – time. Time for us to discover what is wrong with them, time for them to get better, and sometimes, sadly, time for them to say goodbye. 

2. What do you want the audience to take away?

That the privilege of life is all around us. Exploring survival at the brink of life allows us to glimpse at something powerful, to cut through the crap of everyday life and gaze at the glimmer of time on this earth. 

3. What’s the best question you’ve been asked in an event and how did you answer?

The question was: “Why do some patients in ICU die yet other live?”

I responded with “I don’t know”.  If, “I love you” are the most important three words in life, then “I don’t know” are the most important words in medicine. They are also the most underused and honest. 

4. Which events, other than your own, have you seen and what stayed with you?

I’ve been coming to the Hay Festival for many years with my family – it is the highlight of our year. I remember crying with laughter listening to the children’s author Andy Stanton and finding inspiration for my own books after hearing Noel Fitzpatrick (The Supervet).

5. If you could sum Hay Festival up in one sentence, it would be… 

Listening, reading, thinking, eating, drinking and laughing.

6. What is so special about Hay-on-Wye?

It is that perfect mix of a beautiful rural location yet great facilities and the mix of diverse talent all around you. Plus, the ice cream is great.

7. What was the last book you read and loved?

I am normally a non-fiction fanatic, but I have tried to read more fiction this year as I’ve been finishing my own book. I loved The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

8. What is the book you’ve most often given as a gift?

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond – I’m distraught I can’t see him speak this year.

9. Which book has most inspired you?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby closely followed by Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

10. Which piece of advice do you wish you could give your 16-year-old self?

There is no such thing as a “temporary” tattoo.