Merriam-Webster defines this word as: 

“The quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people; the quality or state of being humble.”

The longer I am alive, I the more dosed up with humility I become. There is so much beyond my control, in fact, most things.  There does not seem to be a shortage of opportunities to be reminded of this and I am actually grateful that life consistently reminds me that I am no more, or less special than anyone one else.

But never have I seen the embodiment of humility more clearly, than in a Pediatric ICU patient of mine from the years I worked as an RN.  While I had the unique privilege of caring for dozens of critically sick children and their families, one of our patients continues to stay in my heart and remind me of just what it means to have humility.

Call him Ron, he was a “frequent flyer” meaning that he was chronically ill, and returned to the PICU regularly.  His Mom, was no one short of an angel, and it was always an honor to be around them.  Ron was quadriplegic and had no use of his arms or legs.  He could speak, move his eyes, and had the use of his index finger and thumb.

If you have spent any time in the hospital, you are familiar with the call button.  You press it when you need something from the nursing staff.  It’s your “help” button when you need it.  Well, Ron couldn’t press a call button.  So we devised a system for him to push the oxygen monitor (pulse ox) off of his index finger and trip the alarm, when he needed help.  That was our cue to see what he needed.

When Ron was intubated, he couldn’t speak.  And since he couldn’t move his own body, we were challenged to move it for him.  Itt was hard to know what he needed without him telling us.  So his Mom created a communication board.  Ron used a lit pen to spell out words, slowly and intentionally.

“T-U-R-N” meant he needed to be rotated onto his other side.  “K-N-E-E” meant something more like putting a pillow between his knees.  We were vigilant about protecting Ron from bedsores, but this was complicated given his condition.  We did our best to honor the requests he could make.  And Mom was always there to help translate.

I cared for Ron for about 5 years, on and off.  Eventually, he needed a trach placed to protect his breathing.  Then years later, I learned that his body gave way.  I attended his “celebration ceremony” where I was able to reconnect with several of the nurses and other clinicians that knew this family well. 

Ron was an amazing young man.  He was the kind of patient that made PICU work special.  When he was healthy, he was smart as hell and studying to become a lawyer.  He wanted to work on legislation to increase accessibility for folks in wheelchairs.  I remember one specific push he had, which was focused on movie theatre access.  He said there was never a good place for his chair, where he could see, and not block others at the same time.  He was always looking for ways to make things better.

Ron’s humility is obvious.  It was impossible to know him and not catch a little of that ourselves.  

But what is not so obvious are the ways in which those of us with fully functioning bodies take our ability to move, for granted.  So I have an experiment for you to try, if you are so inspired:

  • Lie down.
  • Stay there until you begin to feel discomfort.
  • When you have an itch, or an ache, or an inclination to move… PAUSE.
  • Take a deep breath, and imagine what it would be like not to be able to.
  • Then, imagine the humility it would take, to depend on everyone around you, ask for the ongoing help you needed just to survive, and still manage to do so with gratitude and grace.
  • Repeat often.

Ron was so patient.  He would spell, and try to point to letters.  We would turn him ever so slightly, and he really let us know if we were going too fast, too far or not enough.  He never lost his cool.  He ALWAYS said thank you.  And the kid had one of the best smiles I have ever seen.

I am grateful for the humility that I learned from this special spirit.  I am not in touch with his family but I imagine they miss him greatly.  I think of him often.  He reminds me, that we can all do hard things, more than we know, if we surrender to what is real, and tell the truth about what we need.  This is so much easier said than done.

Anytime you need a dose of humility, and find yourself inclined to feel entitled, “better than” or above another human being, you can tap into this fast exercise, and remind yourself that we may all be arrogant until we need help.  Learning to ask for it, and having your life depend on it, is a quick trip to remembering we are all the same.

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