When I was a little girl growing up, patience was never my strong suit. On occasion (and they were MANY!!) I would work myself up into a frenzy of frustration at not being able to do the thing I had set my heart on or not getting something right the first time. The ensuing emotional fallout was legend … everyone would flee! At school the comment that accompanied me on my report card from my first day at school to my last went along the lines of “must focus more, needs to slow down!!” Along with “can do better” and, inevitably, “impatient”.
As a young adult in search of the ultimate thrill it was only the next big thing – finding the highest wave, the stormiest seas, the deepest dive – that seemed to matter. The academic quest for satisfaction felt like a Sisyphean task. Frustration levels peaked regularly, with the inevitable consequences except as I grew older they seemed to be harder to shake off. My Dad, my staunchest supporter AND critic, would say “Alexandra (!!) … if you can dream it, you can think it. If you can think it, you can do it. So get out there and find the way to do it.” I tried. I studied – a lot, I read, I travelled, I sailed, I surfed, I dived. I searched for myself on beaches, crossing oceans, sleeping in railway station waiting rooms. I crossed continents and borders, followed the wind and went wherever the sharks were (more about that later). I got jobs, I worked, I paid my taxes, I grew up. But it still didn’t feel right. Something was missing but I didn’t know what it was.
So there I was, this insular, frustrated, impatient young (maybe not so young!) adult moseying through my life, living the dream. Or so I thought. Let’s face it, what could be better than living on Grand Cayman, island paradise of eternal sunshine and ice-cold beer, being paid to sail, dive and generally have a good time 24/7? One afternoon, an afternoon pretty much like any of the other working afternoons of the previous couple of years, I came up from a dive during which I had been hand-feeding stingrays whilst hysterical tourists snorkelled overhead. Sitting on the back of the boat I was struck by a bolt from the blue …. “WHAT am I going to be doing when I’m forty???? There’s got to be more to it than this!”. In that instant my life changed course irrevocably. Call it fate, karma, kismet, whatever, I had had a wake-up call. I quit my job, said goodbye to paradise and went home. I went back to University as a “mature” student. Very often I thought “WHAT HAVE I DONE???” My parents said “stick it out”. I said “I don’t know if I can”. It was hard, I didn’t know if I was happy. Exams came and went, a couple of years passed and I was on the point of giving up. My clinical contact began – I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. Me, who had roamed the planet alone, jumped out of planes without a backward glance, dived with sharks, fed stingrays with squid held between my teeth, surfed wild west-coast atlantic waves, examined shark stomach-contects on the heaving decks of research ships …. my time had come to step up to the plate, to take responsibility for someone other than myself. Someone for whom, in whatever small way, my efforts would have an impact on their physical, and, by extension, emotional, wellbeing. I was terrified.
We all have moments in our lives that we can go to, accurately, precisely, in a heartbeat. My parents remember exactly where they were and what they were doing the day John F Kennedy died. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the day the news broke of Princess Diana’s death. The day I walked into my first clinic and sat down with my first patient, the person with whom I would take the first tiny (and very closely supervised) step down the road that was to become my life, is indelibly etched into my memory. I was crippled with fear. The patient wasn’t much better. I sat down, picked up my mirror and probe and said “open wide please”. And in that instant I knew, KNEW, that everything I had done up until that point, everywhere I had been, the journey I had been, on was to get me here. To this point. That journey continues to this day and I now know what was missing. Because I do it every day and even now, so many years later, it continues to thrill me.
So if you’re a nervous patient, if the thought of going to see your dentist fills you with dread, if, when you walk into the surgery and the smell of that clinical smell I’m so reliably informed we all have makes you want to turn tail and run, slow down, breathe deeply and remember this ….. you may not be overjoyed to see me but I am definitely pleased to see you and not for the reasons most people think (inflicting pain springs to mind). I am happy to see you because that day, when I sat down with my first patient and asked him to “open wide please” I started a journey that I could never have foreseen, a journey that continues every day in a thousand tiny ways, each of them different. Each of them special. And you are part of that journey. So, after we’ve had a chat, once I’ve got you as comfortable as I can, when I ask you to “open wide please”, please do so knowing that by that performing that simple act you are making me very happy.
Until next time: floss, brush, take your time, don’t rush.