Hurricane Sandy – A lesson from the eye of the storm

A deluge like Sandy or an illness like cancer quickly resets our outlook. Might we learn this lesson before natural disaster or emotional tragedy strike?

Hurricane Sandy 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)
Hurricane Sandy 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)
Every year during the last week of October, many people take a genuine interest in my field of work. I treat cancer. The last week of October is the time when major media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times descend on the annual meeting of my professional society to portray medical breakthroughs as breaking news.
This year, the American Society of Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO) convened in Boston, which happened, on the same date, to become one of the epicenters of Hurricane Sandy. So this time, as TV reporters interviewed us, my colleagues and I were asked to comment on storm conditions rather than potential cures for malignant disease.
One day before the hurricane made landfall, Sandy was being characterized as either a “megastorm” or a “Frankenstorm.” Although it was impossible to articulate the difference between these apparently sensationalized terms, one day after the hurricane hit, all agreed that both monikers represented understatements.
Meanwhile, back at the meeting, the atmospheric conditions were surreal. We – the conventioneers – had arrived to exchange ideas, expert-to-expert, in someone else’s city that was on loan to us for 72 hours. But as this perfect storm crashed into the shore, we all received a less-than-perfect crash course in meteorology; our new area of expertise.
Professors like me never shy away from adopting an authoritative tone. We quickly acquired the temerity to speak about “the rare confluence of the full moon tide and the warm-cold fronts that had, obviously, fueled the surge.” Obviously! In truth, we all sounded like we had unsuccessfully memorized “Hurricanes for Dummies.” Our regurgitation of facts that we did not comprehend was simply pathetic.
As depicted in newspapers and on the web, Hurricane Sandy immediately took its toll on the macro level. The storm mercilessly killed people, damaged homes and upended businesses. On the micro level, for conference participants, even the simplest tasks turned into challenging ordeals. Blustering winds blew the drenching downpour in a horizontal direction that walloped us and pushed us back as we tried to perform the simplest tasks such as crossing the streets that connected the hotels with the lecture halls.
Highly capable people were instantly being rendered dysfunctional. When conference organizers noticed that most incoming flights were being re-routed and that Amtrak had suspended operation of all its rail lines in the northeastern United States, they had no choice but to cancel opening day activities. The decision was surely heavily weighed as the opening day centerpiece is always the highly anticipated Plenary, a showcase for the sharpest of cutting- edge results from elegantly designed clinical trials.
In the hotel lobby, after people had scrambled for safety and sat down by the fireplace, conversations evolved in an almost theological direction. Sure, someone made the inevitable analogy to the Noahide floods that were recounted in synagogues around the world just one week earlier. But then, a deeper, decidedly spiritual tone to the discussions ensued.
Despite all the efforts made to collect, analyze and report the exciting medical data, the assembled physicians realized that there would be no major scientific presentations this year. Suddenly, we doctors had a revelation. We were not in charge. Some external force – divine or otherwise – had usurped the reins to inflict the rains.
We began to observe what our patients discover after a cancer diagnosis: life does not always proceed as planned. First and most evident, no one plans to get a tumor. But then, that diagnosis quickly takes over and consumes the patient and the caregiver. A new prioritization sets in. Appointments for tests and treatments trump everything else previously scheduled, even though tests and treatments don’t always take place as scheduled.
Even for people who aren’t control freaks, the experience of marching to someone else’s drumming is humbling.
Whether the consequences of Hurricane Sandy are attributable to God, Mother Nature or some other supernatural entity, my colleagues and I were being reminded of a simple truth. Despite the occasional attempts of certain people to deify us, we doctors are not gods. And irrespective of religious beliefs, a consensus emerged that the faster we learn to accept the limited influence we have on the way events unfurl, the happier we might be.
As someone who can be one of those “control freaks,” I can easily delude myself into thinking that I am invincible and in charge of all outcomes in my life. But this way of thinking sets us up for the disappointment that arrives when expectations are not met. A deluge like Sandy or an illness like cancer quickly resets our outlook. Might we learn this lesson before natural disaster or emotional tragedy strike?
The author, a professor of oncology, is the chairman of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center and the cofounder of Life’s Door-Tishkofet. His blog (“52”) is featured on