The most extraordinary morning of my life took place because of a young stranger in a green track suit and a catchy ’80s rock hit.
As I was preparing for an extra shift at the Montefiore urgent care center, where I work in the Bronx, my day started with my usual hustle: squeezing in the last sips of coffee, packing lunch, and digging my favorite pair of black scrubs out of the dryer. I sped down four flights of stairs while simultaneously struggling with a mental riddle: “How many COVID-19 patients versus traditionally sick patients will I see today?” As I passed through the lobby, heading toward the street, where I expected to see the Uber I had requested, I heard the booming guitar chords of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” To my amazement, a young man—no older than 21, and sporting an apple-green track suit—was holding open the back passenger-side door of a black Toyota Camry. The song was coming from the sedan and I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see whom this grand gesture was intended for. I soon realized we were the only people outside on the block.
“Is this Uber?” I asked. He nodded his head “yes” and I entered the car. After all the months I’d spent going up against COVID-19 at work each day, seeing it devastate millions of lives across the world, and especially seeing how it had affected my patients, this unexpected song choice made me giddy. How did someone his age even know this song? Looking in the rearview mirror, the young driver noticed the look of pure elation on my face and took my mood up some more, saying “I figured we’d get you to work in a good mood; you have important work to do.”
I arrived at the clinic feeling exhilarated. While riding this emotional high, I texted my husband to recap the experience.
He responded with an amusingly shocked expletive.
Next, I shared the tale on Twitter. What followed was just as unexpected as hearing those Survivor chords first thing in the morning. Like wildfire, the story spread across the platform and triggered an outpouring of encouraging comments, testimonials to life’s joyful moments, and accounts of random acts of kindness. I use my Twitter account to share and receive support, but nothing I’d done had gone viral like this. More than 23,000 likes, 1,000 retweets, and 100 quote tweets later, I realized how unexpected strangers have the power to infuse the energy of joy into one’s day.
Here are two examples:
Admittedly, as a physician and health-equity advocate, I am accustomed to obstacles, disappointment, and grueling work. Inequities in healthcare lead to sicker patients and fewer options to offer for treatment in the exam room. And when treatment is available, our medical team waits with bated breath to see if the patient’s insurance will cover the cost. I chose to take my skills to a historically neglected community, but despite my continued efforts to stay positive, at times I feel the work is unseen.
But the truth is that we are never invisible. We see one another day in and day out, and within an instant a gesture of kindheartedness can spark joy. An idea best articulated in the essays of Audre Lorde is that joy is a propelling force that has the capacity to create unity and strengthen resilience.
Health-equity leaders rely on communities to stand with and FOR us while we’re attempting to rebuild a healthcare system that can serve us all. Thanks to the driver in green and the community of optimists who came to boost my story on social media, I was gifted a lasting memory that will fuel my efforts in caring for chronically ill patients, implementing systems of equity, and teaching healthcare workers how to combat bias while delivering patient care.
We all deserve this. Whether you work at home, deliver packages, perform maintenance in hospital rooms, stock grocery store shelves, or drive an Uber, you deserve to feel valued for your work. Now is the time for us to tap into the motivational power that resides within all of us to generate and facilitate the transmission of joy as often as possible.