05 Oct When I walked out.
IF you wait for inspiration, you may wait all your life, because it does not come as an order. Inspiration must come through the capacity of creating, of imagining, a capacity we all have within us, at different levels. During my 40 year career, my inspiration was influenced by my work, my search for better care for my infant and children patients, but only later did I understand the full meaning of inspiration, its relation to creativity, to re-imagining myself and being true to who I am.
Over the many years that I worked as a surgeon, I came to realize that one of my deepest beliefs about medicine, and about being a doctor, no longer matched my core personality. I was paralyzed by uncertainty. Did I want more work and more responsibility on which I had thrived and from which I drew my identity and more medication to keep me alive, or did I want to make a drastic change and jump into the unknown where I had built little identity at all? It was a question I had never had to face before, but I chose to face it, and I was scared. Changing the direction of my life was a difficult decision. Either I needed to become a different person or remain the same at the cost of my life and health. I was at an impasse, nervous and frustrated.
Choosing retirement was my answer but what a frightening choice it was! When I walked out of the hospital for the last time on December 1, 2009, I was feeling everything at once – fatigue, eagerness, freedom and distress, but fortunately excited about the prospect of driving down to my new home in Palm Springs, where I would trade my suit, white shirt, and tie for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I had spent three decades working in Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital. I was trying to hold myself together, while feeling out of control. I was determined to make this transition from being a pediatric cardiac surgeon to a retired one with grace and dignity. Working over 60 hours a week takes its toll, especially when you add the daily stress of being a pediatric cardiac surgeon and the toll of sleep deprivation from too many nights on call. The time had come to make a major shift in my life.
I now have time to reflect on what this whole adventure meant. I had been so set in the routine of my life and profession. It was comfortable, and it was all I knew. I had this drive to learn, to stretch myself mentally and physically with daily exercise and the occasional marathon. I loved to experiment and think outside the box. These characteristics were present in my father and I was grateful to have inherited them.
For about a year and a half, it seemed I had found the freedom to explore a sense of myself beyond being ‘Dr. Jacques LeBlanc, Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon’. After coming out of the initial euphoria of beach lifestyle and sunny skies, I realised I had been quick to dismiss and marginalize my contribution to the lives of many patients, friends, family and colleagues whom I had cared for and with whom I worked. I was falling into a rut. I have never been one to sit around and wait for things to happen, though, so I looked for some ‘new clothes’ to wear. The ‘T-shirt style’ no longer fit so well. I was initially at a loss, but I was still a doctor after all, and I had a career of accomplishment. How could I bring it to fruition? I decided that exploring new life opportunities with a psychologist would be a possibility, although a scary one. That tentative start began a 2-year-long professional relationship with Rory, and led me to analyze my career, my personality, my desires and the very few plans I had for the future. This analysis was a great awakening which helped me to understand how I could be a doctor again, just a different one – the one I had been searching for and now looked forward to growing into, and to reinventing myself. And I did.
I considered life in retirement as a new period for reflection and exploration into my newfound creativity. Transition is a passage to something new. I was at the start of a new beginning, on the threshold of re-inventing myself, of finding a new way to come into life. I began a process of steps taken one at a time on this new path. After multiple discussions with my friend psychologist, Rory, I found myself deciding to write a book, and to put into words my feelings, emotions and memories. A year into it, I realized that it was not such an easy process. I had reflected on my relationship with my father, before his death in 1980 and after his death, but I began to realise there might be more. Reflecting on the many children I had treated helped me to explore the concept of spiritual life, my relationship with death, and my own soul through considering their souls. I had a hard time expressing my emotions and feelings into words. The book started as a collection of many stories, and I could not see it through; I could not connect with the new me I was trying to develop. Then one day, after discussion with a friend who is a poet, it hit me, I would write the book as a conversation. The revelations seemed easier as I worked with my friend the poet, and a surgical colleague, both asking multitudes of questions, challenging me to my core; ultimately Path of a Healer: a time to reflect was born.
Through my conversations with Phil, my dear colleague and friend, I explored the power of the soul including my own, my relationship with death, and the feelings I had kept buried for so many years. Phil, my trusted colleague, before and after his death, with his inquisitive mind and his capability to challenge my ideas and explore emotions helped me transfer this bounty of experience into words, pushing the boundaries of my creativity as never before. Phil, as a result of his own professional life, and his many years working with me helping children, was able to understand my sense of humanity and empathy in the practice of medicine.
I believe that each person’s expression of his/her soul is unique. Our soul is our inner self that we lock away in order to engage in the material world. Being able to recognize objectively and to accept that you are a unique person, a unique expression of your soul, is life affirming. However, tapping into soul is abstract, ambiguous, and mostly unconscious. This is the work of creativity, the energy that guides my fingers repairing the baby’s heart and the patient’s heart repairing itself after my stitches. My participation in these two acts, both practical and spiritual, is my own uniqueness. The survival of a baby in surgery, for example, is beyond my control, and I have many stories of love and loss. I cannot control the intricacy of heart function or the complexity of interactions. I can, however, control my repair and my stitching, and I concentrate on that. I rely on my capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses, facing death without trying to cure it. Still, stress does creep in, especially through the suppression of feelings, which tend to re-enter my life in a flash in unexpected ways, and that stress has certainly taken its toll. The pressures are ongoing, and crises are unpredictable; real resilience is being prepared to be unprepared, a hard concept to explain in words.
Through this reflective process of finding myself, exploring my soulful nature, studying my relationship with death, I arrived at a new project. I decided to write my autobiography in French, my native language. With the help of an amazing writer/editor and friend, a new book called A Coeur Ouvert: un recueil de pensees came to fruition. My journey in finding myself, and in re-inventing myself is not over. I know a lot more about myself, my feelings and my emotions. I am not a new person, but I hope I am becoming a more evolved person. This process, having started with the first book and moving even further in the depth of my personal understanding with the second book, has allowed me another way of knowing my uniqueness within the layer of collective humanity.
While my retirement from my surgical practice has challenged my sense of identity, it has also increased my awareness to question my priorities. I have opened or liberated my creative spirit and with that, I have reviewed and renewed myself. In practical ways this new found life since my retirement has allowed me to discover writing as a creative outlet and welcome the expansion of exploring myself. Perhaps what is emerging in society and in each of us is an awareness that there are many ways of knowing, of self-discovering and of self-growth