Safety on the Knife’s Edge

Life, death and the healing power of watching someone tee off
Even from a distance, courses like Carnoustie provide an escape. Photo by David Cannon/Allsport

Every night we’re on call in the NICU (or ER or PICU or ICU or OR), there are quiet moments when the silence and stillness feel impossibly loud and oppressive; nothing is happening, but everything is inching toward another inevitable semi-choreographed mosh pit of chaos. The halls may be muted, but fear-induced adrenaline still pumps as we await the next piercing shrill from the phone on our hip, shredding the uneasy calm. It will thrust us into that climax where the life of someone’s child will be placed in our hands and we could be the determinant of whether or not that precious gift will survive. Those moments of action, when your training and experience kick in, can sometimes feel like the easier ones; it’s the emptiness of the quiet times that can crush you. An escape to a more meditative and calming place is often the only thing that can hold us on that knife edge of focused readiness and keep the torrent of thoughts like “What might go wrong?” and “How the hell can I possibly handle this?” at bay. 

My fellow neonatologists and other doctors all have varying coping methods. For some, it’s meticulous preparation: obsessively reviewing their checklists and reexamining the same lab values and notes they’ve already seen a dozen times. For others, it’s reading or doing a puzzle, losing themselves in a refreshingly low-risk task where their brain is still stretching and maintaining its increased metabolic rate. Some do laps, beating circles on a track that takes them from unit to unit and bedside to bedside, searching each monitor for the same benign fonts and colors they saw during the previous lap.

My escape is much more literal. A few clicks and I’m on the first tee, 2,892 miles away.

Though it’s just a cold, flat glass screen, I can instantly smell the salty ocean breezes. I can hear the crashing of the waves below and the bristling of the native grasses. Some days I can even feel the plush grass under my feet. Movement in the lower left of the screen is part of the trance as I watch the next foursome leave the path by the welcome sign and float over to the first tee box. My glowing altar teleports me back to that moment when I was one of those incredibly lucky bastards, when my cheeks were cooled and stung by the Pacific’s winds and I inhaled Bandon Dunes.

This webcam is a drug and therapy that I have come to lean on, a respite when in need of a steadying moment. But I also seek e-sanctuary ogling pixelated versions of Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, St. Andrews and Carnoustie. They transport me back to days of walking the rolling contours of 18 or 36 holes with my clubs slung over my shoulders, accompanied by good friends. It’s inner peace through meditative voyeurism. 

Suddenly my ASCOM phone explodes, the ringer volume still maxed out by whoever guarded these halls before me. I am ripped back from the open air; it is no longer my tee shot bounding down the hardened fairway toward the perched green, but me sprinting up the stairs toward a mother draped in a green sheet, terrified about her emergency C-section. 

The next few hours will be a blur of tension and hope and sadness and relief and anger and exhaustion and confusion. And, hopefully, success. Eventually the storm will subside, and once again I’ll go hunting for a tee box that can return my mind to a state of readiness and calm. I’ll peek out a window on my way, hoping the light in Oregon is perfect.