As we come into the holiday season and the end of the year, it is routine to take stock, remember the good times and set New Year’s resolutions.
I suspect the conversations will be different this year for most of you given the suffering, challenges and uncertainty brought by what I refer to as “Annus Horribilis” (a play on the classic Latin meaning “terrible year”).
Many of us lost our jobs and many more lost loved ones. These are profound changes for any individual and I both empathize and grieve along with you.
But as we dive into streaming services instead of attending movies, concerts and sporting events and come to terms with our homes transforming into our children’s classrooms, that understandable yearning for “back to normal” can have a very malignant effect on our moods, our productivity and our loved ones.
There will be ample discussions that analyze all the dysphoria of 2020, so let’s have a different discussion.
For a moment, let’s be unconventional and completely unorthodox and focus on all the things that went right in 2020. Consider this perspective a new coping exercise ... is everyone ready?
As a surgeon at the New Jersey Neck & Back Institute, I see a lot of things most people do not. I get to see injuries and conditions of the spine that cause patients significant problems get resolved through surgery and other methods.
I get to see, work with and operate exceedingly complicated equipment that allows me and my operating room team to perform interventional surgery that brings relief and allows patients to return to a better quality of life.
I get to see a brilliant and highly trained team of men and women support my surgery in that same operating room and in the hospital caring for patients and helping them heal when I put down my scalpel.
Any surgeon who walks into an operating room and isn’t awed by this experience each and every time is in the wrong place (and possibly the wrong field). You can’t be an effective healer if you lose your sense of wonder of both the human machine, the mind blowing maintenance we perform on it and with those who care for it by repairing it. That didn’t change in 2020, in fact it went into overdrive.
I performed surgery this year under conditions I and the rest of the world had never seen. Our health system, especially hospitals, was stressed in ways we hoped we would never see — but it didn’t break. We cared for patients with COVID in overflowing ICUs and though many were tragically lost the number sloped downward as the months went on.
We got better at confronting the virus in a matter of months. We learned how to keep more people alive as the months went on, what early interventions work and in what may be the greatest medical miracle I may ever see — we created, tested and deployed a vaccine in a matter of months.
Through it all, I still performed surgery and treated patient’s neck and back problems successfully while navigating the infection hazards. The system red-lined several times ... but it didn’t break down, and I was proud to be a part of it.
The prevention protocols also presented challenges to seeing patients at our four office locations and this was dealt with through telemedicine visits. While in person exams are still necessary we were able to see a huge percentage of patients on privacy compliant software programs and our world saw a completely new application for our smartphones, tablets and computers.
This allowed me and all health care providers to continue providing care. It wasn’t perfect and some surgery dates were changed ... but we kept working. If you told me when I was in medical school that I could keep working as a doctor and the entire health care system would be using video as an effective delivery tool during a pandemic lockdown I would have laughed and poured you another drink. But it happened, it was glorious and it’s here to stay.
The same happened with schools across the country. Instead of children completely missing all the necessities of school, they too migrated on line and didn’t have to pause their education.
Was it disruptive and disappointing for many? Sure, and some students had more trouble than others learning on Zoom calls, but overall the system worked and children were able to receive instruction and support from teachers and peers. Portions of that are also here to stay and will help many students in the years to come in various ways.
We learned we can order groceries on our phones and they show up on our doorsteps (my kids knew that already but it was new to me). We watched a completely new type of rocket safely deliver astronauts to the orbiting space station and return to the launch pad to be used again.
We saw our postal system and package delivery companies rise to the logistical challenge of massively increased volume bolstered by e-commerce, climaxing in making it possible for millions to vote and while meeting the unique and extraordinary needs of delivering a vaccine that is kept at 90 degrees below zero in planes, trains and automobiles.
So many systems worked as they were designed to and have brought permanent convenience and efficiency to our lives that will increase access to health care, consumer goods and education. Cue the slow golf clap.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the extraordinary racial reckoning underway that also defined 2020. But if we zoom out from the hyped media coverage and the shouting pundits, then rather than see this as a painful and emotional cacophony we can see it as the start of a long overdue process of healing and bridge building.
Conversations around race are difficult — so much so that we often avoid them at the societal and individual level. But that conversation broke through in 2020 and regardless of your point of view I believe it’s the start of a journey that will arrive at a better place, a place where we redefine our understanding of community, equality and cooperation.
By now you see my point — one way to offset the pain 2020 brought all of us is to focus on our survival skills and solutions and how they worked at the individual and societal level.
I’m not being flippant when I quote the famous Monty Python song “Always look on the bright side of life,” because we’ve never needed it more than now. NJNBI is still open for business and ready to help you with your neck and back problems — and we will continue to be here for you and your family.
And as we look ahead to 2021, let's hold our heads high with hope and optimism for surviving today and thriving tomorrow. We at NJNBI truly wish you and your families respite, reprieve, and relief but also good will, success and much love. We will get through this together and you’ve got this.
With strength and love and respect,
Sandro LaRocca, MD and everyone at NJNBI