“When I no longer thrill to the first snow of the season, I’ll know I’m growing old.” – Lady Bird Johnson
“The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.” – e. e. cummings
“Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” – Bob Dylan
I am not that different now than I was as a kid, with the prospect of a snow storm looming in the future. As the storm approaches and the forecast comes in to focus, I feel the spark of excitement building in my core. I can’t help but feel this quickening, the magnitude paralleling the magnitude of the anticipated storm.
Here in New England, we are bracing for a storm of “historic magnitude”, “Top 5” , whatever that means. A nor’easter predicted to blow in and lay down between 2 and 3 feet of snow where I am. What a thrill!
Things are different now, of course, than in childhood. Instead of the delicious prospect of a bonus day off from school, spent “helping” dig out, playing in snow, and getting Mom or Dad to make up some hot chocolate or a warm nourishing comfort-food meal, more practical preparations and planning take precedence.
The planning is ever present. As a doctor, and especially an on-call general surgeon, it is critical that I be able to get to the hospital regardless of the weather.
My specialty is one of a handful that are mandated to be available if a hospital is providing emergency care. From the car I chose to drive, to my arrangements with my plow-guy, many of the preps for the storm have been in place well before winter comes, discussed and refined before any storms are forecast. What phone I use, a backup beeper, how the answering service routes calls, all laid out so they will be functional whether or not I have power.
If I’m not on call, I can hunker down cozily to ride it out, ready to make my grown-up hot cocoa (spiked with cinnamon, chile and powdered coffee), a pile of journals and books arranged to read by window or candle light if the power fails. I never seem to get to the movies on TV or DVR, enthralled by the updates on the news and weather stations (shout-out to NECN), confirmed by the view from my picture window.
The storms do not care if there is rush-hour traffic, a busy office schedule, surgeries. The evaluation, balancing — is it safe enough for the patients to come, is it routine or urgent, how many are cancelling versus determined to come in, how dangerous is it for our staff to travel home? The flurry of cancellations and rescheduling, the bargaining with the patients and the schedulers, all done with an eye on the clock, and on the accumulating snow.
On call, it is a constant calculation — to quote the Clash “Should I stay or should I go?” If it gets too stormy, if my plow guy cannot keep up, I have the bag packed to go ride it out at the hospital. It is a bit of a thrill ride, driving to the hospital in the midst of a blizzard, snow swirling around, the wind howling, no one on the roads in the way. Sometimes a challenge to see the road, to see beyond the snow blowing in front of the windshield, blinded by the reflection of your own headlights hitting the wall of snowflakes, as you navigate the tracks to the hospital. Once there, it may be a while, until everyone is dug out, until the reinforcements arrive.
It is eerie being out in the middle of a snowstorm, day or night, the whole world muffled and quiet and still. One feels quite solitary, loathe to disturb the peace. You feel like an interloper, but the hospital ID and stethoscope at your side are the passport to permit your travel to the hospital.
Being snowed in is an adventure, especially at the hospital. There is light and heat, thanks to the generators. Everyone is joined in the camaraderie of being stuck there together, determined to make the best of it, to continue to care for the patients. It is almost like a holiday, but this one is unplanned, at the caprice of nature.
The hospital becomes a warm beacon, not just for the care and comfort behind its doors, but quite literally because it may be the only place with light and heat for miles. It is a haven in the storm, for those who are sick in the hospital, for those too ill to wait for the storm to pass, compelled to venture out to seek help, treatment, relief. The doors are always open to receive those in need of the services there.
This time, I am not on call, I can remain cozy in my house, watching the snow as the storm begins to build, hoping that I have power, prepared if I do not.
Sending out a prayer and good thoughts to my colleagues and to all of those essential workers, who must brave the storm, keeping doors open and lights on.
Stay safe, stay warm, stay well.