By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
Hello, everyone. In the midst of the holiday madness, I hope you’re taking a moment here and there to steal away and grab a little quiet time to stay centered. Don’t forget to balance your fun time with self-care time. Snag a healthy snack and take a walk breathing in the fresh winter air wherever you live.
As our soldiers come back from war, it’s a time to remember to be grateful for all that we have, and I don’t mean material things. I mean the priceless gifts of cherished times with the people in our lives.
I was thinking about all of this as I entered the White House to enjoy the fun and frolic at their annual holiday party and meet the First Couple. My good friend Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA, the U.S. Surgeon General, accompanied me as we waded through the endless crowds of celebrities, members of Congress, and presidential friends.
One of the highlights of the evening was walking down the hall of portraits and gazing at the presidents and first ladies, recalling special moments in history. I did my internal medicine residency at George Washington University and we were usually the first stop for White House medical emergencies. I remember with crystal clarity the day I was on call in the emergency room when President Reagan was shot. I had the distinct honor of meeting him and Nancy under extraordinary and unforgettable circumstances. As I stared at their portraits, my mind drifted to the memory of his smile and good humor as he rested postoperatively in the ICU, the First Lady a constant presence by his side.
Lost in thought and memories, Dr. Benjamin and I meandered through the masses until we got to a grand room where the air was filled with the sounds of the tinkling of champagne glasses and clattering of forks on dessert plates.
I took a picture of the sugary confection the chef had molded into a replica of the White House.
Someone’s going to have fun munching on that after the holidays!
Then there was the dessert table. The Xmas cookies were amazing. Check out the spread in the picture I took.
Assuming you’re not eating what I call a bingeable (any food that leads to a binge and feeling totally out of control), then it’s great to have a treat and really enjoy yourself fully in the moment. And enjoy we did!
I have a great story to tell you. I wanted to find a table in one of the sitting rooms where Dr. Benjamin and I could rest our feet before our meeting with the President and Mrs. Obama. I eyed a table with two open chairs and three lovely people happily chatting away. They graciously offered us the empty chairs and were thrilled to meet the U.S. Surgeon General. I noticed that one of the women looked sideways at her husband and raised her eyebrow. As we sat down, I asked her if everything was OK. Half laughing, she said, “Well, I thought my husband had put you up to coming over here and sitting with us. Why? I’m a smoker and I have been trying to get off the stuff for 30 years.” We all laughed out loud. I mean, come on, here’s a long-time smoker with a pack of cigarettes that has the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning plastered along the side label and now she’s a foot away from the Surgeon General.
But you know, it really affected her. She said perhaps it was a divine intervention, and her husband nodded in agreement. Dr. Benjamin and I offered a laundry list of effective methods she could use to drop the habit. And you know, she wrote them down and I’ll bet you she follows through. Crossing my fingers.
Finally, the appointed moment came and there we were with President and Mrs. Obama. Tall and youthful-looking despite the usual presidential grey hairs, the president appeared to be having loads of fun meeting old friends and making new ones. We shared thoughts about the challenges Americans face striving for health and wellbeing in a national minefield of stress and hardship. Smiling knowingly and thanking us for our work as physicians, Mrs. Obama noted that we need to continue to lead with example and find every way we can to communicate a message of hope and promise as people strive for improved mental and physical wellbeing when socio-economic stresses bear down upon Americans.
Nodding in agreement, we finally smiled for the official photographer and now we wait with baited breath for the picture to arrive in the next several weeks. I’ll share when it does. What you’ll see is that yes indeed, the First Lady is about 5’11″ and towered over my 5’9″ frame, even in heels!
As I walked the long halls to exit the White House that night, I was approached by a group asking each of the departing guests to write a holiday card to our troops still at war far away. They handed us a card which the White House would send to our military overseas. It made me remember my gratitude all over again, as I scribed a brief note saying how much I appreciate their risking life and limb and how proud I am of our men and women in uniform.
So as we celebrate the holiday season, let’s take a moment to reflect on all that we have to be grateful for. Here are special gifts you can experience and share with the world:
Minimize the Material. The holiday season was never about accruing material things. It’s about celebrating all that is priceless in life. What’s precious in your life?
Remember the Four “F’s”: Family, Friends, Faith, Fitness: My good friend Ken Cooper, MD, MPH, founder of the Cooper Center for Aerobics in Houston, once shared the four “F’s” with me and I never forgot them. Whenever you’re feeling stressed out of your mind and perhaps slipping into the darkness of helplessness, hopelessness, and defeat, stop and recall these “F’s”. Center your life around them, as they are inextricably intertwined. Strive to optimize your relationships with family and friends. Find and nurture your faith in life and spirituality. And remember, this all works so much better when you’re mentally and physically fit to meet the challenges and embrace the joys of your life.
Become an Angel: I recently read an article about the “Layaway Angels.” Frankly, it blew my mind. What an amazing way to touch someone’s life. So, I gave it a whirl and I’m still glowing from the experience. I went to a department store and stood near the layaway section and watched as people came to hand over another payment. I chose a man with 2 adorable children in tow. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bill and passed it to the clerk. After he’d left, I quickly ran up and asked what his balance was. “0 and he’s done,” she replied. I handed her the money and asked her to run after him and tell him he could take it all home now. She asked me my name, and I simply said, “Tell him the layaway angel just visited and wishes him and his family happiness.” We found him browsing with the kids, and I hid and watched. I don’t know who cried more, this obviously wonderful and loving dad, or me, squatting behind a stack of pretend play kitchens.
Live, Laugh, Love: One of my patients is a breast cancer survivor and started her own foundation, Living in Pink, which I work with every year. I once asked her what was her secret of stress resilience, as she’d been through so much. She gifted me with a mile-wide smile and the three words “live, laugh, love.” She’s right. As you reflect on your life this holiday season, see if you’re prioritizing living life to its fullest, laughing along the way, and loving others, as you also remember to love and care for yourself.
Happy Holidays to everyone!