On January 20th, 2007, a middle aged unassuming man walked into the L”Enfante subway station in Washington DC, just as the morning rush hour was beginning to fill the station with busy morning travelers and took a spot near a mural wall. Clad in a baseball hat and sweatshirt, he took out his violin and began to play before the empty case, inviting those passing by to contribute a dollar or two to his efforts.
Over the next 45 minutes the morning travelers were treated to six classical masterpieces. But this was no ordinary street performance. This performer happened to be Joshua Bell, the Grammy Award winning violinist who had recently played to a full house at the Met. Less than 48 hours before his impromptu subway appearance, music lovers had shelled out just over a hundred bucks a seat to hear the artist.
Mr. Bell’s performance on that chilly August morning was inspired by a question. Would people recognize the beauty and remarkable talent of a world class violinist, playing a 3 million dollar violin out of context? Could a master violinist and his music penetrate the early morning rush of a busy subway?
The answer was a resounding no. Few people stopped to listen for more than a few seconds. (With the exception of a single small child and one woman who recognized him.) A few more contributed a dollar or two in passing.
If you’d like to see Joshua’s performance, you can see it here.
So why do I bring up Joshua Bell and the subway performance here? I bring it up because in EMS we do this all the time. We are busy. We are rushed. We are focused on the task at hand. And, in the midst of our call, we miss some truly remarkable people and we pass by some extraordinary possibilities for human interaction and connection.
Just as the busy subway travelers rushed passed, seeing only the struggling musician trying to make a few extra bucks, we often only see our patients for their medical complaints. We see their skin color and their vital signs and we evaluate their potential to decompensate. We question, we palpate and we evaluate. And we often miss the simple fact that the person before us is extraordinary.
Humans, by their very nature, are remarkable. If you’re willing to recognize that essential element of their nature, your job will be immeasurably more fulfilling. Medical complaints become boring over time, but humans are incredibly interesting. If you spend your career treating chest pain and fall victims you will quickly become tired of your job. Spend your career treating humans. They are immensely more interesting. Start right now.