I woke to the sound of the flag flapping at half-mast outside my window at the Wyndham Baltimore Inner Harbor Hotel on September 11, still unsure about how I felt being at the American Medical Association's 13th Annual Conference of the National Task Force on CME instead of with family and loved ones on that difficult day. The AMA, like other groups that had meetings that week, had the tough job of balancing mourning with the meeting's message.
The opening session began with the National Anthem, a moment of silence, and a rendition of “God Bless America,” but it was with an almost audible sigh of relief that afterward, everyone immediately went back to business. At 8:46 a.m., the panel was discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the current CME system, but my inner eye was reliving that horrible moment of the first attack. Then the next, and the next … . I looked at my neighbors, busily writing notes, and wondered what they were feeling. But we didn't talk about it. Not then, or during the breaks, or at lunch, or at the reception that evening. No one so much as glanced up as the sound of sirens and church bells permeated the ballroom walls. It was borderline surreal, but I understood our need to hide vulnerabilities beneath the business-as-usual mask. It kept us in our comfort zone on that most uncomfortable day.
But then I thought of poet David Whyte, who the night before had shared his reflections on September 11, and how we can find faith in these uncertain times. He said the greatest opportunity for personal discovery and growth comes from where we spend the majority of our time: our work. But all too often, work has an opposite effect because we rush to keep up, and end up losing ourselves. “The great tragedy of speed … is that very soon we see only those moving in the same whirling orbit,” he said. “We start to lose sight of the bigger, slower cycles that underlie our work. We especially lose sight of the big, unfolding wave form passing through our lives that is indicative of our central character.”
Instead of rushing around that day to panel discussion after panel discussion on new medical meeting-related regulatory actions, best practices, and enforcement actions, perhaps a better way to mark the day would have been to do what the poet asked of us: Take off the masks. Speak out about what's most human, most courageous about our work. Find ways to reclaim our humanity in our working lives.
Or maybe that should be the challenge for CME providers: to put on that sort of program for their physician-attendees, who all too often are accused of seeing the disease instead of the patient, of having lost the connection to humanity in one of the most human of all professions. Drug and treatment options come and go, but if you really want to improve patient care, what could be more important than helping docs remember that the heart beats on both sides of the stethoscope?