September 9, 2021

Can a conversation be life-saving?

This month, we marked ‘R U OK? Day’, a day dedicated to checking in on your loved ones, your colleagues and on yourself as well. This year’s theme, “Are they really OK? Ask them today”, invites us to dig deeper and go past the usual “I’m OK, how are you?” The current pandemic has brought many challenges to our staff – both at work and at home. One of our colleagues, Dr Vinita Rane, wrote a letter to share how the pandemic has impacted her and her family:

I am someone who struggles to name a favourite song, or favourite food, book, movie or piece of clothing. It seems so very limiting to be confined to a single item. And yet, recently there is a song that keeps bubbling up from my childhood. It is unlikely to be familiar to you: it’s from a 1965 film, and the film is in Hindi. The lyrics have been reverberating in my head, on and off, “aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai/aaj phir marne ka irada hai,” which can loosely be translated as: “Today, the desire to live has returned. Today, the intention to die remains.” In the film, as she sings those lyrics, the lead actress wears a bright blue sari while dancing precariously on top of the ruins of a narrow stone archway, and it seems that at any moment she could tumble off to her death.

It seems an apt metaphor for the uncertainty that we all find ourselves in at the moment. My son is one of only a handful of children who can attend daycare, but he uncharacteristically cries at drop-offs, startled by the new COVID-safe drop-off procedure. I plan teaching sessions for our medical students one week, only to cancel them the next. My HIV clinic is once again telehealth only. Over the course of three days, my daughter’s birthday party in early August went from being restricted to 10 guests, to being able to invite 50 people, and then ultimately completely cancelled as we re-entered lockdown.

After two consecutive birthdays in lockdown, my daughter told me that she made this birthday wish as she blew out the candles on her cake – she wished that we would be out of lockdown for her 8th birthday. Last year she wished that we could travel somewhere on a plane. It didn’t come true.

And yet, I acknowledge that we are incredibly fortunate. Both my husband and myself have a stable, secure income. Our parents live in Melbourne and both my parents and my in-laws are vaccinated. As an essential worker, I thank my lucky starts that I am not having to home school my daughter. I also get to leave the house and have conversations with other people.

R U OK? Day, at its heart, is about having conversations, although it seems to me that asking people “R U OK?” this year is redundant. None of us are OK, and it would be a superhuman feat to be thriving in the current climate. In fact, it strikes me as I type this, that it wouldn’t be superhuman, rather it would be inhuman. It would require a willful blindness to the struggles of those around us. And this is the point of R U OK? Day – it reminds us to take a genuine interest in those around us, and let people know that we notice their struggle, and that we care about them.

I’ve often joked that my husband and I both have faces that say, “please, tell me all of your problems.” (Or at least we did, before our faces were obscured by masks!) What we have both realised, is a large reason that we have been drawn to the work that we do, is that we have an intense curiosity about people. We unconsciously have always sought out moments of connection. Now, because of the limitations with physical distancing, masks, face shields and other PPE paraphernalia, these automatic efforts need to be crafted intentionally.

In an uncertain world, creating a sense of belonging and connection is a powerful balm, and perhaps even lifesaving. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is notorious in its popularity as a location to suicide. Interviewed in 2003, Kevin Briggs, a motorcycle patrol officer, described how he had coaxed over 200 people back from the precipice.

He starts by asking them the question: “How are you feeling today?”

Dr Vinita Rane is a sexual health/general physician and medical educator. She is the Deputy Director of Medical Education for the Northern Clinical School at the University of Melbourne and is currently one of the physicians caring for COVID-positive patients on Ward 22. Featured image: Dr Rane with her daughter.

“R U OK? Day” resources from our Wellbeing team can be found on the Intranet.