A natural Sunday morning calm had the emergency room at St. Louis University Hospital almost asleep when it was rocked awake by a crash of thunder followed by electronic snapping and popping from the center's shortwave system. Usually, the outside voice at the other end was from one of thirteen emergency vehicles that supports the hospital. This time it was the fire department. The voice was calm and dispassionate, as though it were not a person saying such terrible words.
“About thirty people” – he was not sure exactly how many – “men, women and children, are on their way to the hospital from 22 miles away.” They were coming in four private cars, two small pickup trucks, a caterer’s delivery van and four fire department vehicles.
The victims were all members of the Good Samaritan Baptist Church Choir. The church was over one hundred years old and in the process of being renovated. That day’s services were to be followed by a fundraising picnic and raffle in the parking lot of the church. This would have been the first time many of the parishioners had seen the progress of the renovation.
The choir came very early to practice since they had not met as a group for some time. With the church under repair, they had had no place to rehearse. They moved from the parking lot when it started to drizzle to what would soon be the new choir loft. This was also to have been the first time in almost a year that the adult and children’s choir were to sing together.
The loft was not ready for that many people singing so joyfully. As the rain came down, so did the loft and the roof and part of one wall and thirty-two members of the Good Samaritan Baptist Church. It was terrible.
Lumber, drywall and all nature of building materials were either below or on top of the choir. The choir was so intertwined and off balance that it looked more like a box of dolls chucked in with the firewood than people. At first it was quiet except for the rain, and then the thunder came, then the cries and groans that can only come from people suffering the anguish of first pain for themselves, then for each other.
Fortunately, the volunteer firehouse that served Montgomery County was across the street and several members of the company were already on their way. They provided what help they could but they knew they needed to move and move quickly. As the caravan of mercy led by its 25-year-old hook and ladder got closer to the hospital, the rain came down harder and the thunder and lightening grew more frequent.
When they reached the hospital the doctors and nurses from the emergency room were ready. That is, they were ready for the people, not the victims. Many of the injuries were quite serious. Even those whose circumstances were not critical were in a great deal of pain.
The staff moved quickly, assessing which patients needed attention first and moving them almost directly to surgery, where members of the senior medical staff of the University were waiting. They were notified only moments after the emergency call was received.
The most serious case was Daniel Seay. He had multiple injuries, several broken ribs, and a small piece of loose angle iron, used to support the wooden cross beams, protruding from his lower back, near his kidney. Additionally, after he had fallen, something or someone landed on his neck, paralyzing his lower body.
One of the firemen stabilized his head so it wouldn’t move but had him on his side rather than on his back because of the protruding metal.
Daniel’s back was to the surgeon as he was moved into the operating room. He was already unconscious and breathing via machines. The surgical team first had to establish if there was any damage to the kidney or any other internal organs.
Daniel was lucky, if this day for him could ever be called lucky. No kidney damage, and what there was could be easily repaired. A new problem occurred when he was ever so carefully lifted onto his back.
The senior surgeon, the chief of the neurosurgical team and head of the Neurological Department of the hospital and the University said, “Oh no, I can’t operate on this patient. He’s my son.”
Dr. Shawn W. Seay was both stunned and afraid, first for a son, then for a patient. The doctor could no longer continue to help Daniel because of both professional and ethical guidelines. The talented senior surgeon, awarded and certified more than any other doctor in the state, was now just a parent, waiting, waiting, waiting.
There was a phone call to be made. Someone else needed to know about Daniel’s condition. Dr. Seay went to the office and hit the speed dial feature on the phone for home. “Daniel’s in surgery, it’s very serious, Get down here now. Please hurry.”
After what felt like days, the doorway to Dr. Seay’s office was filled with a figure dripping wet, silhouetted by the light from the outer office. They hugged, more to feel and be felt than for support and reassurance. “How is he?”
“He’s in intensive care. We should know by this evening.”
By 7:30 that evening his vital signs had returned to near normal and his systems all appeared to be recovering, but they could not tell how much disability he might have to live with.
As his parents stood over him on either side of his bed, Daniel started to wake, slowly, as though his internal systems were being turned on like a pilot flipping on one switch at a time in a preflight warm-up of his plane. Still dazed he reached his hand toward his doctor. “Hi, mom.”
Yes, his doctor was his mother. Most people assume his doctor was his father.
The old joke about the word assume is that it makes an ass out of u and me. Assumptions are intellectual shorthand that condense experience and past choices into faux facts. Most businesses are managed by assumptions, not consciously, but historically. The decisions and choices that are made to guide the future of many companies are formed using non-technical data, human experiences that address more how things were the last time than how they might be this time.
There are so many options to choose from in our everyday life. Sometimes after we make a choice we assume that the elements that helped us to select that particular option will always stay the same. We assume that the conditions that helped us to understand and appreciate the circumstances around a particular choice will stay consistent.
For example, just because a university has several prestigious graduates from the class of 1965, does not mean the faculty and facilities that helped shape and develop those alumni are still there and performing as they did years ago. The university may not necessarily be the same.
Constant change is a normal part of both business and personal life. However, because people often try to ignore the unstable, the disconcerting, the annoying, even the fearful aspects of change, we choose to be soothed by the cold compress of assumption.
Buckminster Fuller said in both his opening and closing remarks of an almost three hour presentation, “Change is normal, change is normal, change is normal. I say this to you three times so you might come to appreciate its truth.”
Only when assumptions are examined and reassessed can we hope to make business and communication choices based on how things are, not how we assume they are.