Conquering Our Fears

by Anu Bajaj, MD

A few months ago, Dr. Rohrich wrote an editorial about disconnecting from our cellular devices titled “So … Are You Failing the Marshmallow Test? Connecting and Disconnecting in Our Information-Rich World.” In this editorial, he advised us on ways to better put down our devices or to pass the “marshmellow test”. I can attest to the fact that many of us, myself included, are very connected in ways that may not always be to our benefit and have a difficult time putting down our devices.

At about the same as the publication of his editorial, I began planning the next vacation for my husband and myself. While his editorial didn’t influence my decision, it did come to mind as I reflected on our trip upon returning home this past week. When I started planning our trip, 2015 had gotten off to a whirlwind start (which only continued through December), so I wanted to go on a “once in a lifetime” vacation. In a conversation with my husband one evening, I mentioned that I had always wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (amongst other amazing climbs) but didn’t know how we would ever find he time. He responded with “lets do it.” So I scheduled our December 2015 adventure.

That evening, some of the discussion between my husband and myself, focused on the fact that our best vacations have been those where we’ve had no or minimal contact with the world at home – these have included climbing Mt Elbrus, trekking in Peru, or trekking in Ecuador. What these trips had in common was time spent in a tent with only each other, and no cell phones – inaccessible both to incoming and to outgoing calls and emails. I should also mention that these trips have involved mountains and high altitudes; and I am scared of heights.

In the weeks and days leading up to the trip, both of us were overwhelmed trying to wrap up work for the end of the year; this meant that other than booking the trip, neither of us had done a great deal of preparation – to the point where I didn’t even break in my new hiking boots despite my good intentions. On the evening prior to leaving, we essentially threw clothes and backpacks together and hoped for the best.

Once we arrived in Africa, we met with the others in our group – an orthopedic surgeon from Canada and his two daughters, a banker from Singapore and his son, our 3 guides, and 52 porters. After our trip briefing and gear check, we needed to pack our safari bags – the bags that would stay behind and be waiting for us when we returned to the lodge and a warm shower. This was my first check about the need for connectivity. We were informed that there were select spots on the trek during which we may be able to receive cell phone reception. I asked my husband if I should take my cell phone. His response was, “I think that it would be good for you if you left it behind.” So I left it in the safari bags. So, with a little apprehension, I left my cell phone behind for eight days.

So how was our trip? Our trip was amazing! We hiked through four different climate zones and gained at least 2000 feet in elevation every night – sleeping at 18,700 feet on the night prior to our summit attempt. For various reasons, my most vivid memories were the last 3-4 nights, partly, because these last few nights were the most terrifying (since I don’t like heights), difficult, and strenuous portions of our climb. I remember climbing for 6 hours from 16,000 feet to 18,700 feet from Arrow Glacier to Crater Camp – at this point, when I became short of breath walking to the toilet tent, and my pulse ox reading came in at 52 percent, I realized that oxygen is important (as part of our climb, we checked our pulse ox every morning and every evening). When you’re cold, tired, and oxygen-deprived, your mind can play evil tricks with you. During this rock climb, I kept wondering about the hikers who were killed on this route several years ago – that incident had forced the Tanzanian government to close the Western Breach route for a period of time because of the risk or rock falls; and I had to do my best not to look down. During our final ascent, my toes and fingers were freezing and numb – my thoughts at that point included how I was going to operate without my fingertips and how I was going to run without my toes.


Nevertheless, my husband, the rest of our group, and myself summited (19,340 feet) successfully and, more importantly, made it to the bottom safely and without injuries. I was proud of myself because I had done something that scared me – climbing a mountain; dealing with steep, rocky slopes; and leaving my cell phone behind. At several points along the way, you could see the porters and my fellow trekkers climbing atop multiple rocks to various high points with their cell phones – desperately trying to make contact with the civilized world – some texts/calls went through and others didn’t. During these interludes, I would think about the absence of my phone and pray that no calamity had befallen our lives at home – the house was still there, the dogs were ok, patients were ok, and the office hadn’t burned down.

Once we exited the park, we climbed into our Land Rovers to head to the lodge. I anxiously awaited our return to civilization so that I could check my cell phone. However, one more roadblock awaited as our vehicle broke down about thirty minutes from the lodge. Part of me wondered what disaster I was missing because I was stuck in the car and couldn’t reach my phone…When, we reached the lodge, I anxiously removed my phone from its location in the safari bags and turned it on. I waited and waited for the barrage of “bings” indicating all the texts that I had missed. However, it remained eerily silent. Then I tried calling home to make sure that all was good. Everything was fine. Upon returning home, my patients and family have since asked how was my trip. I have responded, “It’s surreal. Once you’re home, it’s as if you never went.”

1. So … Are You Failing the Marshmallow Test? Connecting and Disconnecting in Our Information-Rich World. Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery: June 2015. Volume 135  Issue 6. Pgs 1751–1754    doi: 10.1097/PRS.0000000000001300



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