Everything Turned Around

Hans Rosling was a Swedish medical doctor and professor who worked extensively in the field of global health. This is a true story of what happened to him one day while training as a junior doctor.

On October 7, 1975, I was plastering a patient’s arm when an assistant nurse burst through the door and announced that a plane had crashed and the wounded were coming in by helicopter. It was my fifth day as a junior doctor on the emergency ward in the small coastal town of Hudiksvall in Sweden. All the senior staff were down in the dining hall and as the assistant nurse and I searched frantically for the folder of disaster instructions, I could already hear the helicopter landing. The two of us were going to have to handle this on our own.

Seconds later a stretcher was rolled in, bearing a man in dark green overalls and a camouflage life jacket. His arms and legs were twitching. An epileptic seizure, I thought; off with his clothes. I removed his life jacket easily but his overalls were more problematic. They looked like a spacesuit, with huge sturdy zippers all over, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find the zipper that undid them. I had just registered that the uniform meant this was a military pilot when I noticed the blood all over the floor. “He’s bleeding,” I shouted. With this much blood, I knew he could be dead in a matter of seconds, but with the overalls still on, I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I grabbed a big pair of plaster pliers to cut through the fabric and howled to the assistant nurse, “Four bags of blood, O-negative. Now!”

To the patient, I shouted, “Where does it hurt?” “Yazhe shisha … na adjezhizha zha …” he replied. I couldn’t understand a word, but it sounded like Russian. I looked the man in his eyes and said with a clear voice, “все тихо товарищ, шведскaya больницa,” which means “All is calm, comrade, Swedish hospital.”

I will never forget the look of panic I triggered with those words. Frightened out of his mind, he stared back at me and tried to tell me something: “Vavdvfor papratarjenji rysskamememje ej …” I looked into his eyes full of fear, and then I realized: this must be a Russian fighter pilot who has been shot down over Swedish territory. Which means that the Soviet Union is attacking us. World War III has started! I was paralyzed by fear.

Fortunately, at that moment the head nurse, Birgitta, came back from lunch. She snatched the plaster pliers from my hand and hissed, “Don’t shred it. That’s an air force ‘G suit’ and it costs more than 10,000 Swedish kronor.” After a beat she added, “And can you please step off the life jacket. You’re standing on the color cartridge and it is making the whole floor red.”

Birgitta turned to the patient, calmly freed him from his G suit, and wrapped him in a couple of blankets. In the meantime she told him in Swedish, “You were in the icy water for 23 minutes, which is why you are jerking and shivering, and why we can’t understand what you’re saying.” The Swedish air force pilot, who had evidently crashed during a routine flight, gave me a comforting little smile.

A few years ago I contacted the pilot, and was relieved to hear that he doesn’t remember a thing from those first minutes in the emergency room in 1975. But for me the experience is hard to forget. I will forever remember my complete misjudgment. Everything was the other way around: the Russian was Swedish, the war was peace, the epileptic seizure was cooling, and the blood was a color ampule from inside the life jacket. Yet it had all seemed so convincing to me.

When we are afraid, we do not see clearly. I was a young doctor facing my first emergency, and I had always been terrified by the prospect of a third world war. As a child, I often had nightmares about it. I would wake up and run to my parents’ bed. I could be calmed only by my father going over the details of our plan one more time: we would take our tent in the bike trailer and go live in the woods where there were plenty of blueberries.

Inexperienced, and in an emergency situation for the first time, my head quickly generated a worst-case scenario. I didn’t see what I wanted to see. I saw what I was afraid of seeing. Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.

These days I am reading the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. In his book he teaches how to look at the world based on facts and data rather than our instinct for fear and dramatic stuff. He shares “Ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world — and why things are better than you think”. This book is based on extensive global data and his vast personal experience of working in the field of global health in many countries across the world, with people of every strata of society — high ranking officials of every industry, the extremely poor, and the majority like us in between.

The world is consistently improving and has made tremendous progress with all people, in every strata of society, on a path to a better life, he says. Even then, our tendency to be convinced that the world is getting worse is because of our instincts of fear, negativity, and a conviction of ‘us’ and ‘them’, that is further exacerbated by what is reported in the media.

This story above was taken from the chapter The Fear Instinct. Whether we are interested in the state of the world or not, it is a telling example of how fear can totally flip our mind around and we end up seeing that which is far far from the truth. If we are interested in the state of the world, this book is an excellent resource to get an important different perspective on the world.

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