Adopting a pandemic puppy has reminded me of the value of play, curiosity, listening, perseverance, and vulnerability. This helps me be a better human and give better patient care.
At first, the pitter-patter of little feet on hardwood floors. Then, a pause and a sniff. Lastly, a wet nose on my palm and a pair of deep brown eyes looking up at me. This is the start of my day.
The pandemic has been the hardest period of my professional life. The long days and longer nights were enveloped with the grief of losing patients and colleagues, anxiety (mine, my family’s, my peers, and my patients’), and great uncertainty. It felt like I’d lost my anchor and was drifting with the wind and responding to each storm as it came.
Before the pandemic, my husband and I wanted to expand our family with a puppy. When we tried to find one, waitlists were extremely long. Over a year later, we received the news that we would be dog parents soon I was happy but also uncertain. Do we have the bandwidth? Is this a good time for us? Am I over-committed in my current roles? This may sound familiar to many out there; I like to call it the “imposter parenting syndrome.” Nevertheless, we became parents to a little canine. On a dark and snowy December evening, Mowgli arrived in our lives, filling our home and our hearts. And wonderfully, life has never been the same
Mowgli is cuddly, loving, comedic, curious, vibrant, and wise beyond his years. He reminds me of Yoda: small, mighty, and wise (although he looks an Ewok). He’s shown me the joys of a life fully lived, and today, I want to share them with you!
Make time for play
Our personal and professional lives ask a lot of us. Often, we find ourselves going through the day without the time or energy to enjoy life. Activities like reading a book, potting a plant, sitting in the sun on a warm day, exercising, or binge-watching cooking shows. Mowgli LOVES 10 minute sessions of dedicated play sprinkled through his day. We spend many intervals doing just that outside and inside. I’ve followed his lead and purposely find 10 minutes in my day for an activity I enjoy. And I immerse myself in it. While it’s difficult to dedicate more time than 10 minutes, I can manage this small amount of time.
I try to follow the old adage: stop and smell the roses. Mowgli’s version is stop and smell the dirt, you might find a flower bud peeking through! Bringing curiosity into our routines may help us reinvigorate our minds and hearts. With our patients and peers sometimes we forget to ask their story, perhaps simple things like do you prefer books, radio, or TV? What are you doing today? Or, tell me about your favorite hobby.
Be mindful and communicate your needs
Mowgli never hesitates to bark his need. I know that he’ll tell me when something is great or not so great and I appreciate that clarity. As Brene Brown says “clear is kind.” Being South Asian and female, voicing my needs and opinions can feel hard for me, especially in a room of “experienced colleagues” or “elders” in my community. And, as a physician, asking for help is encouraged, but being independent and self-reliant is also reinforced as part of the hidden curriculum. When shared in a mindful manner, voicing our needs or asking for help can help identify opportunities for growth and improvement in the healthcare system.
Listen with eyes and ears
We use different types of languages, including written, verbal, non-verbal. And while I don’t speak canine, Mowgli and I have our shared language that includes verbal cues, verbal tones, non-verbal cues, and non-verbal actions. I can imagine the gears in his mind working as he absorbs all of them. He listens with his eyes and ears. When I talk, he shows his attention with his gaze, posture, and slightly tilted head. He exemplifies what we teach to students, to make eye contact and express attention by non-verbal cues like nodding. It’s a skill that Mowgli has mastered in only one year and I’m still learning.
Mowgli has a toy that we routinely stuff with treats and make them purposely difficult to extract. He’ll play with this toy for an hour. He uses every strategy to gain access to the treats. And a failed attempt doesn’t keep him from trying again. He perseveres. In our personal and professional lives, there’s often obstacles. We must ask for help and prepare for a long uphill trek if needed. Nonetheless, persevere. The effort invested often leads to a better future for us and those that follow.
Like most dogs, Mowgli loves to have his belly rubbed, allowing himself to be vulnerable and expressing his trust. He’s encouraged me to be comfortable with my own vulnerability in safe places and circumstances. It’s an important aspect of being a person and a physician. We ask our patients to be vulnerable and trusting. We’d be remiss if we don’t strive to build a community where trust is the foundation upon which sits a house of mindfulness, kindness, vulnerability, and acceptance.
I’m learning every day as Mowgli guides me in the journey of life. Life is a little lighter and brighter since he became a part of our family. While waking up to a dog like Mowgli is wonderful, closing my day at his side is truly my favorite part of the day. He snuggles into my lap, exhales deeply, and helps me appreciate the present moment. I’m so grateful for the gifts he has given me.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.