We’ve all had a lot of information to try to process and absorb in the past months. A year ago, had there been a ready-to-go vaccine available, one that had been created for just this exact pandemic, I suspect we’d have had line ups around the globe. However, we did not. And so, for better or worse, we’ve all had a front row view of the vaccine-making process. Up until this pandemic, I really hadn’t given much thought as to how vaccines are made. I don’t think I can name the efficacy of the shingles or annual flu vaccine. I certainly do not know which pharmaceutical company produces them. But this year, with the Covid 19 vaccine, it’s a different story.
I’m now familiar with companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZenica. I’ve listened to one news story after the next about which vaccine might be best for which age group. Sprinkled in among these stories were stories of potential safety hazards. Would the vaccines be safe? Were the vaccines created too quickly? Which is best? And on and on.
Since Tuesday was the same day I had a booking for my first dose of the vaccine, I was fully tuned in to what the doctor had to say. It wasn’t, after all, too late to change my mind should new pertinent data have surfaced overnight. So, as I drove I listened carefully as the doctor explained some of the complicated controversy that has surfaced around the available vaccines, in particular, the AstraZenica vaccine, the one I was scheduled to receive in about 8 hours.
I found him to be both reassuring and comforting. He also made me think. One thing he said that stuck with me is that doctors take an oath to ‘Do No Harm’. He explained that people often mis-interpret this to mean that when a doctor takes an action, that action should do no harm. There should be no intention to do harm with the action. Patients, and families of patients, tend not to be forgiving when a mistake in action is taken.
However, he explained there is another side to the oath. He said it is also possible that a doctor may choose to not take any action. Most people think this would be safe. However, it is possible that by not taking action, harm is also done, thus breaking the oath. The interesting thing is that people are more likely to forgive an inaction, than an action, even if both have a negative result.
He put this into context with the vaccine. He understands that people have reservations, that they may think that by taking action, by receiving the vaccine, they may inadvertently do harm. He also understands they may be using the faulty reasoning of by not receiving the vaccine, they could not be doing any harm.
As I drove along, trying to absorb this new thinking, my mind began to think about places in life, non-Covid places, where we use this faulty reasoning. We worry that by saying something we might do harm, and we reassure ourselves if we stay quiet, we could not possible hurt anyone. We’ve all had opportunities to step up and do something or say something to help someone in need. Sometimes we do or say the thing, and other times we’ve been afraid we might not know the exact right thing to do, so we’ve erred on what we thought was the ‘do no harm’ side.
This belief of course has a serious flaw. It is based on the assumption that by doing nothing, we can not possibly do harm, that by saying nothing, by not getting involved, by minding our own business, by bystanding, we will certainly not make a situation worse.
This new thinking is not any easier for me to sort out than is all the information about vaccines. Luckily, in the world of vaccines, I really don’t need to do all the thinking. We are blessed with incredibly competent medical professionals in Canada. In my own life, making day to day personal decisions around whether to take action or not, it’s a different story.
I know there have been countless times when I have spoken up, when I have said something to someone when it may have been easier to quietly walk away. When people are in grief, or struggling with health or personal issues, it isn’t easy to know what to say. Over the years, I’ve learned to be intentional with my words, and to not be afraid to show up in support. I have found it much less easy when I notice an injustice being done, to find my voice. I don’t have trouble finding my voice in a professional setting; it’s in those unexpected places, like the grocery store or on a city pathway, I notice myself reverting to childhood teachings of ‘mind your own business’. I tell myself I am doing no harm, but today, in light of my new learning, I understand I have simply been rationalizing my behaviour. I can think of many places when I have taken action, good, positive, action, and other places where I’ve chosen to become invisible.
Do no harm. Three simple words. Such a complex idea.
In order to live this, I have to become nimble. I’m going to have to challenge that old belief of minding my own business, and not use it as my automatic go-to. There will still be some great places for me to mind my own business. There will also be places for me to take action, and places to continue to speak up. There will be places where my action is not needed and places where my voice will not add anything of value.
There is no template for us to use in our lives to ensure we do no harm. We cannot either always take action nor can we always stay silent. We can however, begin to ponder, how best our actions and words, and our inactions and silences help us make our worlds better places.
On Friday I was sitting in a lab, getting ready for a CT scan. I was required to drink a contrast dye solution prior to the scan; one cup every 20 minutes for two hours. There was one other person doing the same thing. She was a bit older than me and spoke very limited English. She was there with her daughter who was translating for her. We had used our eyes to smile at each other when she arrived but had not spoken. At one point I noticed we were filling our glasses at about the same time. I waited for her to fill hers. She looked inquisitively at me. To myself I thought, ‘Do no harm’, and I raised my glass toward her, smiled under my mask, and said, “Cheers. To good health.” The corners of her eyes crinkled as she raised her glass to me. “Cheers”, she said.
My inquiry for you this week is, ‘How can I best do no harm?’
Elizabeth is a certified professional Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership coaching. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. She has particular expertise in facilitating Strategic Plans for organizations. Contact Elizabeth to learn how to best do no harm.