Ending things


For years, I've been working out of a clinic just a few blocks from BC's biggest hospital, in the heart of Vancouver. The specialists I refer to are stacked a dozen layers high in the medical office buildings just down Broadway. At lunch, you can strike out in any direction and find a satisfying $8.95 lunch in minutes: congee, bagels, sushi, ramen. The neighbourhoods hold heritage homes with porches and wildflower gardens. There's traffic and sirens. It's a vibrant hub.

In December, the health authority moved the refugee clinic across town, further east, to the city outskirts. It's far more accessible to patients, most of whom don't live in Vancouver. It's made my morning commute ridiculously complex. Everything's shrunk a little - the team, the exam rooms, parking options. There's Tim Hortons or Fresh Slice for lunch. 

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The patient is a young Iraqi mother, and I ask her how she's doing. She speaks so quickly that the Arabic interpreter can't keep up. Suddenly the patient stops talking and digs in her purse for her phone. She stabs at the screen. She's going to show me a photo, I'm sure of it.

This often happens in the clinic, and I never know what I'm going to be presented with. More than once it's been an album of toilet bowl contents. Sometimes it's a rash. Once it was a picture of the patient in his previous life, standing in front of a grand home with an orange grove out front. And sometimes patients show me something terrible: third degree burns sustained during torture, or a crucifixion. 

She passes me her phone, and I'm looking at a scene of dead bodies strewn across a living room. I look at the picture like it's my job, because it is. It's part of caring for this patient. Something doesn't make sense, and I automatically do a finger spread, zooming in, only to realize that the bodies are mutilated. I hand the phone back to her, and she looks grimly satisfied. The visit ends soon after. She doesn't need anything else today. 

When I see her later in the waiting room, she blows kisses at me with both hands. 

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Last year I came across a GTD (getting things done) principle that I found particularly interesting. The idea is that we lose productivity because we spend too long on one task before moving on to the next. That is, the problem isn't necessarily that we don't have the discipline to start a project, it's that we find it extremely difficult to stop whatever we're currently doing.

The context was of discrete, minutes- to hours-long activities: I don't go to bed on time because once I dive into work emails I can't stop. I don't get around to the laundry because the quick kitchen tidy evolved into a pantry reorganization. 

But I wonder if this applies on a much larger scale. Perhaps too often we continue with our work, say, because it's the comfortable default, and we've built up a momentum that would take too much effort to interrupt. 

Maybe we need to be better at ending things in general. 

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I've worked at the refugee clinic for over ten years. Tuesday was my last day.