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On Call: The Benefits of Gratitude

Wed, 04/07/2021 - 14:49

The last week of my personal life has been . . . well . . . complicated. My grandfather passed away after a short battle with bladder cancer. Fortunately, he had recently transitioned to home hospice care and was able to spend his last days at home with his wife and my aunt. He lived in Texas and, despite being vaccinated myself, I wasn't able to travel to see him in his last days. While that was difficult, he was able to end his life on his own terms, peacefully and without suffering. As a physician, I know that so many do not have that opportunity, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I am so very grateful that he did.

Those thoughts of gratitude come on the heels of a week in which I have been contemplating the last year of the pandemic. On Facebook, I came across a post that I'd written in the early days of Covid-19 in which I pleaded with my friends and family to stay home, wear masks, and socially distance in order to save their lives and others', and the enormity of what has passed in the year since threatened to overwhelm me. As I thought about that, I realized that it's not just the thought of what lies behind us that is overwhelming, but also what lies ahead. 

As we stand on the cusp of the tide possibly, finally, turning in this pandemic — with approximately four million people here in the United States being vaccinated every day as of the last few days — we can start to more easily imagine a world in which we inch toward normalcy, toward the reopening of our cultural institutions, gathering in groups, and eventually no longer having to wear a mask in the post office or the grocery store. 

Yet for so many, these thoughts bring anxiety as well -- how precisely will we know when it is truly safe to take those steps toward normalcy? What if we think the time has come, and we're wrong? 

Instead of focusing on these, I'd rather we spend these days simply being grateful. A year ago, none of us could have known that so many health care workers would come together so resoundingly to share information about caring for Covid-19 patients, or that scientists would be given the means to finally develop mRNA vaccines at a pace reflective of what can be done when brilliant minds are given the resources they need, or that communities would spring into action so decisively and tirelessly to care for the most vulnerable among us by delivering groceries and raising desperately needed money for businesses threatened by the economic devastation of Covid-19. 

Yes, we lost so many friends and family. We will never forget those losses. Yes, so very many businesses were wiped out by the drastic but absolutely necessary steps taken to stem the punishing tide of Covid-19. 

But those of us who remain, who carry the memories of those loved ones we lost or of caring for Covid-19 patients in protective equipment in isolation rooms, each and every one of us who has fought tooth and nail in this war, we all have so much to be grateful for. 

For example, I am grateful for every single nurse, certified nursing assistant, technician, sanitary worker, cafeteria worker, and staff member in the hospitals where I work who did not give an inch in this fight, who offered me weary smiles and kind words after long shifts. I am grateful to the readers of this column, who have given me a space to engage in, to try and do my small part to explain what is going on and why, both in terms of general medicine and wellness and often with regard to the pandemic. 

I am grateful for all of these things, and so much more. And that too is an important step. Being grateful will help us remember that no matter what comes next, whether that's a new battle in this war or even the end in the foreseeable future, we have come so far. As I like to tell patients who struggle with mental health issues like depression or anxiety or their weight but can say that they have successfully developed coping strategies or lost weight in the past, simply knowing that you have done something before can give you the strength to do it again, if necessary. Several medical studies have shown the power of gratitude. One at the University of California, San Diego, showed an association between actively practicing gratitude and improved markers of heart health in heart failure patients, as well as better sleep and mood. 

I often use this space to make suggestions for improved health, and this week, I want to do the same. Much as I am spending these days remembering my grandfather's life and being grateful both for the time I had with him and the ease of his passing, I hope you can take the time in the coming weeks to be grateful for how far we've come and what we were able to accomplish in this past year. 

Joshua Potter, D.O., a physician with Stony Brook Southampton Hospital's Meeting House Lane Medical Practice, oversees the practice's Shelter Island office. He specializes in family and neuromusculoskeletal medicine. Opinions expressed in this column are his personal and professional views and not necessarily those of his employer.


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