The other day I decided to go into my home office and clean it out. Not a small feat. There were papers from conferences, and boxes full of things that I did not even remember I possessed. As I got to the closet, I came across an old box. I opened it up not knowing what the contents held. It was full of old pictures. Amongst them was one of my friend Dan Bourque, smiling, on a sunny day, on a sail boat. Just how I want to remember him.
It has been 20 years since he has passed and I went right back to the moment I found out he was gone.
It was the summer of 1997, I was traveling in Brazil as part of an International federation of Medical Students exchange program after my Second Year of Medical School. I was in Salvador de Bahia doing an OB/GYN elective. There were two other exchange students with me, and we made sure to take some time to travel around the incredibly beautiful state of Bahia.
On one of our adventures, we traveled to the Chapada Diamantina State Park. I can tell you, I have never been anywhere so beautiful - the plateaus, the caves, the waterfalls.
It was a Thursday. We had gone on an excursion where we were snorkeling in a Cave called Poco Azul. The water was an incredible crystal blue. It was so clear and the fish were swimming around us – lit up with electric streaks!
At one point during our swim a cold rush came over me. I shot up out of the water, scaring my friends swimming next to me. They also shot up to make sure I was ok. They asked me what was wrong - my face was blank and pale. I looked at them and grabbed their hands and said “We are so lucky. Some people do not get to live and experience this. But here we are experiencing such beauty in our world. We are so lucky to be alive. Some of us don’t get to live.”
I remember my words clearly. My friends were just a bit freaked out. They stared at me and asked me if I was ok. After a few seconds, I shook it off and said “Yes, yes, I am ok” They asked again “Are you sure?” I said “Yes. I am just grateful to be here.”
Later that day we went down into another cave, Poco Encantado, where there was another underground lake. We hiked down a narrow stairwell, and at the bottom, we overlooked a lake. There was a hole in the earth above, and when the sun shone down through the hole, it lit the lake up with a ribbon of electric blue light. I have never seen anything like. It. As we ascended up out of the cave, our guide, who only spoke Portuguese, turned to me and said “Shailla – Indiana Jones!” He was so right - It was so cool and just like the movie. Again, I felt truly blessed in that moment, and grateful to be alive.
When we got back to the city on Saturday, I had the opportunity to check my email. This was 1997, before we had cell phones and wi-fi. One of the first emails I opened was from my Medical School room-mate Koto. It said: “Shailla, when you read this can you give me a call? It’s important.”
The next email I opened was from my medical school.
In so many words it said, “If any of you need counselling to help you deal with the death of Daniel Bourque, please contact the office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education”
My heart sank.
My friends just looked at me “What?”
“Oh My God - Dan died” My face was frozen in shock. “My friend, my classmate. Died.”
“I don’t know”
“The emails are from Thursday”
I checked other emails there was nothing other than rides shares to the funeral happening that day in his home town. I started to shake. Those around me did not know what to do. But they held the space around me.
I needed to call home. A phone was handed to me. I called my roommate, No answer. I called my parents. Yes, there was a car accident outside Shediac. Six people were killed. I could hear the pain in my father’s voice as he told me and realized that one of them was my friend.
I remembered that weird sensation I had on Thursday. I had felt that we were so lucky to be alive and to have this experience. Not everyone gets to live. Perhaps it was coincidence. But my friends standing around me remembered that moment as well. “That was the day…” They became even more freaked out.
I felt lost being away from my friends and classmates. His girlfriend Shelagh, his roommate Neil, and his Family - what were they going through? I just wanted to be there close to everyone. We all need connection in grief.
That night, we had concert tickets for a Brazilian Bombshell singer that everyone loved. My friends held back, taking cues from me. I wanted them to go, but they didn’t want to leave me alone. At the last minute, I decided to join them, as I was getting antsy in the house. I was still in shock and nothing seemed normal. We made our way to the waterfront amphitheatre. I remember having an out of body experience, dissociated as we moved through the crowd. Their festive energy was so opposite from mine.
But then I saw the ocean and the heard the crashing of the waves. The Atlantic. My connection to home. I thought of Dan – the surfer, sailor, lifeguard, and the aspiring Emerg Doc. He was just so happy to be there in Medical School. He took it all in - the work, the exams, the pressure - without one word of complaint. He enjoyed every moment. Whether he was drawing a Dan-O-Gram on the white board explaining physiology or going to a party - his enthusiasm was equally infectious.
I stood by the ocean and watched the Brazilian Surfistas. Again, I felt something come over me. It was weird. I felt he was there with me, on the beach in Salvador listening to the music, enjoying the crowd. He reminded me to do the same – Enjoy this moment. It was grounding.
In that moment, I felt re-connected to the world around me.
I felt “out of it” for a few days. I did not cry, I did not laugh, I do not think I even cracked a smile. I just remember feeling nothing.
Then, once again, as is the custom in Salvador, a friend or Host-family member came around to take me and my fellow exchange students to another concert. This time, it was Olodum – the drum band featured on Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints Album. We had made plans to see them that evening. We were in the square in historic quarter of Pelorinho. Half way through the show, they began to play Bob Marley's “No Woman, No Cry.” The familiarity of the lyrics, the vibration of the drums beating in unison, and the crowd singing around me, resonated through me and woke me up. I was not alone. In that crowd, dancing to the rhythm of those drums, I felt it was safe to let down my defence. I allowed myself to cry, to let it all out through rest of the concert. Tears streaming. Drums beating. My heart pounding. It was such a welcome release at such a difficult time.
The beginning of that third year of medicine was a difficult time. We had all come back together, only to find out that another friend in the fourth year class, Steve died by suicide.
I distinctly remember, on our first day back, the Staff leading our "Introduction to Clinical Clerkship" session said "Welcome back. We know you have all had a hard summer, but now it is time to move forward."
No other acknowledgement. Their lack of empathy and sympathy left me stunned.
Welcome to the Profession. Suck it up. Keep going.
Somehow we survived. We held a memorial and we got through. It was not easy, in fact I am sure many would say it was painful at times, but we all kept going.
A few years later, I was a family medicine resident in Ottawa. I was applying for a coveted third year position in Emergency Medicine. I was so scared of the complexity of Family Medicine, that I found ER a welcome escape – you could play detective, gets the labs and X-rays, fix bones, suture people up, save lives in real time. The rush of It was fun, if not addictive.
I will never forget the morning of my interview in second year residency. I was so nervous, partly due to the built-up anxiety of being grilled on the spot during my training. I knew my interviewers well and had worked closely with them. I knew they mostly liked me. Yet, it was still a formalized and intimidating process. Did they think I was good enough? Was I good enough? Self-Doubt is a soul killer.
After the interview, I continued to ruminate about whether I said the right things. As the thoughts were racing through my head, I realized that I had some free time before my afternoon clinic so I took the opportunity to get groceries – a luxury in the “all work, no play” schedule of a resident.
I walked into the grocery store, grabbed my cart and made my way up the escalator. A song started playing over the loud speakers. “Southern Cross” by Crosby Stills and Nash. I had never noticed music in the grocery store before. But there were those voices humming loud and clear “HMMMmmmm, Hmmm, HMM HMM HMM Hmmmmm.” It pulled me right back to the Lower Deck, drinking post-study beers with Dan and other friends. It's a song about sailing, one of our favourites.
I felt like he was right there with me in that store, right after my Emergency Medicine Interview. Coincidence? How could it be? He wanted to be an Emerg Doc so badly. In that moment, in that store, I again felt his presence. I thought If I become an Emerg Doc, he would too, through me. That thought gave me comfort and quieted my mind. It was going to be ok. Whatever happens, I'll get through.
No one said life was fair. We lose so many, so young, in ways we all wish we could prevent. I know the pain of Dan’s passing as a friend. He had so many friends and family, all of whom know the pain of his loss. I also know that his life carries on through all of us. I have spoken to many of my classmates who tell me stories of feeling his presence. There is no doubt in my mind that we carry him, and maybe sometimes, he carries us too.
In his memory, I share with you the following songs. I hope this brings a smile to you - and feel free to share your stories, memories or songs in the comments if you wish.
As well, please do not to Drive Under the Influence - Alcohol, Drugs or Cellular Technology. Everyone's life depends on it.