Oddly enough, I loved the work, and many of the lessons I learned in the ER turned out to be great preparation for my career as a freelance writer.
1. What an emergency is...and what it isn't.
In the emergency room where I worked, the staff got pretty excited when someone's heart stopped beating or when a patient came in spurting gouts of blood from a wound or an orifice. Other than that, we were a laid-back crew.
Similarly, I don't get terribly worked up when a client calls me with an "emergency." I respond in a prompt and professional manner, but I figure if the client still has a heartbeat and is capable of speech, we have time to work things out.
It was also working in the emergency room that taught me one of my all-time favorite quotes: "Lack of prior planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."
2. Start where the client is.
This is a guiding principle in the social work field, and I've found it to be enormously helpful in my writing career as well. Starting where the client is means listening carefully and asking questions to clarify what your client wants now--not what I think she should want or what I think he needs.
Starting your work with the issue the client feels is most important is a way of demonstrating respect and building a bond between the two of you. Once that bond is established, your client will be more likely to listen to you when you suggest other services that might be helpful.
3. Take regular breaks.
If you drive a car continuously without ever stopping to fill the gas tank or check the oils and tires, the car will stop running, leaving you stranded.
During my first year as a social worker, I was like that neglected car. My clients had so many needs, and I was convinced that I could meet them all if I just pushed myself a little longer and worked a few more hours. By my third year, I was suffering from headaches and incapacitating bouts of anxiety. With a little help from a counselor at the Employee Assistance Program, I realized that my workaholic tendencies weren't meeting anyone's needs, including my own.
From then on, I gave myself permission to leave work at work and to take vacations without feeling guilty or calling to check in every day. After one of these breaks, I always returned to the emergency room refreshed and with a much better attitude towards my work. The same types of breaks that restored me as social worker also restore me as a writer. All work and no play can lead to some pretty dull prose.
4. Don't expect to finish everything.
As an ER social worker, I learned all too quickly that I could work round the clock and still not accomplish everything in my job description. There was always one more homeless woman who needed a shelter referral, one more bereaved family member who needed a hug, and one more stranded man who needed a bus token or a cab pass to get home safely.
At about the same time I decided I needed to start taking regular vacations, I taught myself to prioritize and intervene in the most important, urgent matters first. As a writer, I finish each day by making two "to do" lists. The first is short, usually just two or three items that absolutely have to be done. I almost always knock that list out of the ballpark.
The second list contains things that I'd like to get done but that are not especially urgent or important. As long as I achieve the goals on my first list, I'm perfectly happy to let items on my second list slide until I can get around to them.
5. Look for humor in every situation.
A hospital emergency room may seem like an odd place to find laughter, but my team and I usually got at least one good belly laugh out of every shift. Granted, the humor was often of the "gallows" variety, but laughter is still laughter, and it sustained us through some horrifying situations.
Today when I feel my jaws clench and the muscles in my neck get tight, I force myself to stop what I'm doing, visit a clever Internet site (I Can Has Cheezburger? remains my favorite), watch a half-hour sitcom, or read a funny story.
The laughter relaxes me and gives my spirit a much-needed boost. I'm soon ready to take on the project that was bothering me with renewed vigor and with a minimum of stress.
How did your previous jobs prepare you for the writing life?
P.S. If you want to see some examples of healthcare professionals using humor to deal with heart-twisting situations, check out my book Hospice Tails. There may be parts that bring a tear to your eye, but it's also 100% guaranteed to bring a smile to your lips.