Plans vs life

The past 13 days have been interesting. I read somewhere about an ancient curse that goes like this, “May you live in interesting times”. The past two weeks have been cursed if you accept that definition. After nearly two years of remaining free of the COVID-19 virus, our remote town has seen an outbreak, and one thing has become very clear. All of our planning and preparation, while good and worthwhile in itself, was overcome by the reality of the pandemic steamroller. I know lots of other areas have experienced this and dealt with it, and we were lucky to learn from their experience. However, what caught us by surprise was the speed and scope of the public health action required. It’s one thing to practice scenarios, and do lots of training in using PPE and doing swabs and contact tracing. It’s something altogether different when you suddenly have to do it for real after 22 months of waiting and being lulled into a false sense of security.

Ready to start leading the team

Sorry if I’m rambling, but I’ll use the excuse that I have worked 72 hours in the past week and had one day off. Balancing the needs of work in doing my part for the pandemic response with my disabled wife’s needs has been a challenge. To add to the fun, a family member who is usually at home to assist with my wife’s care had to go away on a work trip just before the COVID-19 outbreak began. Everything was planned, and transport arranged weeks in advance, then our plans got derailed. My car needed some major work a couple of weeks previously, and I had to wait an awfully long time for the parts to arrive, so when I was left alone with my wife to care for and a sudden COVID-19 outbreak, I had no vehicle. No problem, I’ll use my bicycle. That was the plan anyway, until the temperature headed into the mid-40s, then the bicycle blew a tyre. The subsequent walk to work was reasonably pleasant in the morning, but returning home in the evening was very uncomfortable. OK that’s fine, I’ll just have a cool shower to freshen up. Sounds good, until you realise that a cold shower is not feasible when the shower water is hot from the cold tap. In fact, in hot weather we turn the hot water heater off as we don’t need it. So here I am with a disabled wife on a weekend, me working 12-15 hours to help with the local pandemic response, no transport, and no help at home. That definitely was not part of our planning! The interesting thing is that we did have a contingency plan for when my wife needed care and I was unavailable, but that involved admission to the local hospital, which is the last place she needed to be during an outbreak. My wife had a backup plan, which was to phone me when she needed my help. Pretty good plan except when I was in full PPE and couldn’t answer my phone for up to 30 minutes.

Despite the plans that didn’t stand up to the crisis, we have managed so far. My wife now has care when I am unavailable due to other family coming home to help. I have transport sometimes, so don’t have to walk everywhere, the hot weather has abated a little, and indications are that we are getting the outbreak under control. That reminds me of a saying we used to have in the volunteer fire brigade I belonged to in South Australia, “If you think the situation is under control, you obviously don’t understand the situation!” Here’s hoping that this time we have got it right.

The lesson from all this I think is that plans are good to have, and while practicing for the unexpected or even the inevitable is better than not, you will never be fully ready. This is not a new idea for me. When I was a team leader in a busy regional Emergency Department, I was known for ALWAYS having a plan B and usually a plan C. This meant that I very rarely lost the big picture and mostly kept my cool. Realising that you cannot prepare 100% for life is pretty useful, as it means you will build in some uncertainty in your planning and resource allocation, including time. For example, if you can “afford” a $1.2m mortgage at current interest rates but not if they go up 1 or 2%, then you can’t afford it.

Our pandemic response planning has helped us at work as a team to get to grips with what we needed to do, and I think the built-in resilience of knowing that we don’t have it all covered has been protective. One comment I received recently was that my get-it-done attitude was appreciated. That comes from my ability to implement plans, to take ideas and make them work. I’m terrible at coming up with ideas but if you feed them to me I will process them and use what’s usable to get things done. That’s why I often end up as the team leader, which is not a role I seek but which nearly always seeks me. I do have plans, and sometimes even follow them, but often find that flexibility and adaptability are also necessary to succeed.

In summary, I think planning is important, as long as we remember that we cannot plan for everything and sometimes our plans turn out to be unusable. To really thrive in this uncertain world, we need to accept the uncertainty as inevitable and work out how to deal with it. Planning, including contingency or backup planning, is just one part of it. If we focus all our efforts on making plans, we are very likely to not get around to living life, especially when things go wrong, which I think you will agree is often.

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