Learning to Duck


I am ducking and weaving, catching and throwing, engaged and attentive, although that attention is divided in a million directions. I am being bombarded, which is not uncommon in my academic practice, but it is never comfortable. A cardiologist wants his patient admitted to medicine. A clerk is handing me a critical lab value. A patient needs a lumbar puncture. A medical student wants feedback on his shift. An agitated patient is causing a ruckus in the hallway. My kids are on the phone to say goodnight and tell me about how school went. My coffee is cooling rapidly. I am thinking of all the balls I have in the air, but I am not thinking of juggling. I’ve always hated that cliché, and juggling would be too simple. You can sit when you juggle. If you are good, you can even lie down. I am on my feet and moving fast. I am thinking dodgeball.

Yes, dodgeball. I’m sure you saw the footage of former president George W. dodging a pair of size 10s hurled at him by a reporter. Regardless of your thoughts on W. and his policy, whether you like him or not, you have to admit something: that guy can duck. I will not speculate as to which team he was on in middle school, the cool or the uncool (I had an eye patch growing up, so I cannot … uh … throw stones), but he has definitely played his share of games. He would be a formidable opponent, with his catlike reflexes. I wonder if his gym teacher is as proud of him as I was.

Dodgeball, if you do not know, is no longer being “taught” in many schools. It is violent and dangerous and promotes bullying. When my daughter started kindergarten, I was okay with this, because the idea of her having objects thrown at her while she tried to catch them or avoid them did not appeal to me. But it also gives you critical life skills, like harm avoidance, multitasking, strategy, teamwork, speed, and timing of your offensive and defensive. More than any other sport, dodgeball is the sport of emergency medicine.

I watch the intoxicated patient swing at one of my chief residents, who neatly sidesteps the fist and pins down the patient’s wrist while four of his teammates catch and tie the other three extremities and protect the patient’s head during restraint. It is graceful and choreographed, and although what I find beautiful does not necessarily follow societal norms, this is a thing of beauty. I hear a second-year resident on the phone eloquently defending the cardiology admission while he simultaneously types in orders for a different patient and eats a doughnut, and I wonder how to explain my admiration of this critical achievement on his evaluation (“able to eat while arguing” is not one of the core competencies of emergency medicine, but it is still pretty important). An intern plucks the critical lab from my hand and initiates appropriate therapy without my asking, and a senior resident walks an intern through the lumbar puncture without me ever knowing it happened. The medical student did a decent job of pulling his own weight, and giving him the feedback takes exactly as long as it takes for me to reheat my coffee.

I am breathing easier. My motley team, such as it is, rallied under the pressure, and no balls were dropped. If one person ducked, someone else caught. If someone suffered a glancing blow, a teammate improvised the save. This is how you play dodgeball. This is how you work in the ED. This is how you win.

My children are off to bed, safe and sound. School went fine. They ran relays in gym, and no one got hurt. But I still hold out hope that, someday, they will learn to duck.