Get out of your comfort zone

Julie Acebal Landon School

The following blog post is a transcript of the ethics speech school nurse Julie Acebal delivered to Middle School students and faculty members about how working as a transplant team nurse taught her that it can be a very good thing to try something new, even if it scares you. Julie's son Nico '21 is a student at Landon.

This past summer, Ms. Krein asked me if I was interested in presenting a faculty ethics speech. Instinctively, in my head, I was screaming, "Nooooooo waaaaay," but somehow those words were not coming out of my mouth. Instead, there was a silent pause. Internally, I went into a mini panic mode — there was no hysteria or hyperventilating, nothing overt like that, but more like a paralysis. I simply froze.

All I could think about were all the amazing speeches that I had heard in the past two years that I had worked here at Landon. My mind was replaying those speeches, as if they were on a movie reel. Highlights of each, flashing in my head: Mr. [John] Botti and the lessons he learned while appearing on the TV show Jeopardy, Ms. [Sarah] DeCamps and her inspirational speech on running. Mr. [Addison] Hunt and his family's experience during the Civil Rights movement, truly amazing. Mr. [Jamie] Sorge and his uncanny ability to compare most anything in life to a piece of food, and having it actually make sense, plus leaving you with cravings! Ms. [Erin] Duffy, who could write an ode to a rock, and it would undoubtedly be riveting! Oh and Ms. [Kim] Coletta... who is literally a "rock star."

The list goes on and on, such impressive teachers with such important messages! But what in the world was I going to talk about?! At this point, I imagine I had a "deer in headlights" look about me, and Ms. Krein must have sensed my apprehension. "You don't have to say yes. Really, it's OK." But before I knew it, I blurted it out, "Yes, yes of course! Thank you." My internal anxiety level was rising.

Did I really just agree to this? Ms. Krein gave me an out, and I didn't take it? Nico is going to kill me... OK, one: I cannot embarrass him. Two: I cannot embarrass myself. And three: What the heck am I going to talk about? The stress was mounting. I went back to my desk and I tried to pull myself together. I am not a "panicker." Panicker: Is that even a real word? Yes, yes it is, according to the Urban Dictionary.

Actually, I am the opposite of a "panicker." The more intense and the more serious the situation, the more calm I become. As a nurse, this is paramount. When you panic, you can't think, and when someone else's life is at risk, you must be able to think and act. Think clearly and act precisely, that's what I do. I did not like the way I was feeling. I was not accustomed to feeling uncomfortable.

I took a deep breath and I slowly gathered my thoughts and started reflecting. Seriously, Julie, what is the big deal? In my (much) younger years, I danced on stage with the New York City Ballet at the Kennedy Center in front of sold-out audiences — no problem there. I have presented to you all several times before without even being a tad bit nervous. As a matter of fact, I actually enjoy it. So, why am I freaking out about this?

Then it dawned on me, it's not about being in front of an audience or even the public speaking I am uncomfortable with; it's the fact that this particular speaking assignment is "out of my comfort zone." And that was my "Aha!" moment. That was it! My topic: Getting out of your comfort zone. I believe everyone should step out of their comfort zone. Great, but now what? The last time I recall writing a persuasive essay was in high school.

Nowadays, my best persuasive efforts include persuading my children to clean their rooms, persuading parents to keep their sons home from school if they have a fever, persuading a certain student that two cups of tea is plenty and to please go back to math class, and persuading another Landon Bear to please stop watching and accepting social media challenges. Setting your hand on fire is a really bad idea!

In all seriousness — I do strongly believe in letting yourself be uncomfortable in order to achieve greater personal growth, but how can I convey this message without sounding like those cheesy motivational posters?

Although there is truth in those messages, and I often use inspirational quotes on my own kids, I don't want my speech to sound like a shallow cliché. Mr. [Brad] Rose did a phenomenal job educating all of us on words: their importance, their impact, and that words matter.

Since I have a bachelor's of science degree, all my papers in college were scientifically based. I love facts, I love research, I love data. Science is evidence based, it is concrete. This is where my personal challenge arises and my unease sets in: discuss a topic that I believe in, based on a feeling? A conviction? On personal experience? Transcribe all that onto paper with words and deliver a meaningful message?

Again, comparing all the prior speeches, I felt incapable of this task and unworthy. I take away so much from others' speeches, not only from the faculty but from you Form II boys as well, that I wanted to give as much from my speech as I received from you all. Even though I have strong opinions, I often have difficulty communicating and translating those thoughts and ideas with eloquence. So, I temporarily popped back into my comfort zone and did a little research.

Is there even such a thing, as a "comfort zone" or is it another motivational metaphor like "think outside the box." I looked it up. Comfort zone: "A place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress."

According to one theory, the term "comfort zone" originated in reference to the temperature zone where we are the most comfortable, and feel neither hot nor cold. If anyone is curious that temperature range is 67–78 degrees Fahrenheit. Psychologically, our comfort zone is the place where we feel most at home: "In our comfort zone, there is a sense of familiarity, security and certainty." When we step outside of our comfort zone, we're taking a risk and exposing ourselves to the possibility of stress and anxiety.

So, why in the world would anyone want to voluntarily experience stress and anxiety? What is the benefit? Well, a bit of healthy stresscan actually act as a spark for growth and provide a powerful initiative to act. Think about how you feel right before you begin an exam, gripping your pencil in anticipation of that first question; or how you feel right before the whistle blows on the athletics field, seconds before the game is about to start; or how you feel moments before the curtains go up on a music or theater performance? It's that healthy stress and those nerves that allow you to perform. It's just enough adrenaline to keep you focused and determined, but not too much that you are overly stressed to be productive and incapable of performing.

According to the experts, this healthy stress is known as "optimal anxiety." OK, I'm feeling good, I'm feeling comfortable. I have my articles, "Escape Your Comfort Zone," "The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone," "6 Reasons to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone." Ha, this speech is practically writing itself.

I could already envision the bullet points on my power point presentation: 1) Challenging yourself can help you perform at your peak. 2) Taking risks is what helps us grow. 3) Trying new things can make you more... wait, this isn't a speech, I realized. This is a list. It is the antithesis of what this composition is supposed to be about. No wonder I was beginning to feel at ease and comfortable again. I ripped up the articles and I delved into my own experiences.

Thinking back on moments in my life where I have reached this "optimal anxiety" to escape my comfort zone, one particular event in my nursing career stands out. I was working in the operating room (OR) at Georgetown University Hospital. I was nearing the end of my shift, and I was looking forward to going home and putting up my dead-tired feet. Yes! It was Thursday. My favorite night for TV. I couldn't wait to find out if Ross and Rachel were still "on a break." I couldn't wait to watch what medical crisis and personal drama Dr. Doug Ross and Nurse Hathaway would endure on ER. I would order food, drink a nice, cold, chilled adult beverage and invite a couple of friends over. Sorry, I digressed.

It had been a good day, it had been a full day, it had been a long and busy day. Working with the general surgeons, it was a day filled with classic general surgery procedures: appendectomies, cholecystectomies, hernia repairs with and without mesh, and lots of biopsies. The first of many surgeries in the OR began promptly at 7:30 a.m., which meant arriving to work at 6:30 to begin the daily routine. I would introduce myself to the patient in the pre-op area, I would review the case cart to ensure the surgeon would have all the correct instruments, sutures, and supplies. I would check the operating room for properly functioning equipment, such as the oxygen, the overhead lights, the suction machines, the cautery equipment, and the operating table. All in order, check.

Today will run smoothly, I said to myself. And it did, surgery after surgery, after surgery, after surgery, going through the same sequence of actions, proceeding briskly through the day. The surgeries went well and we moved along the day efficiently. Before I knew it, we were done. My 10-hour shift was over. I would stop by the nurse's station and tell the charge nurse that we finished all our surgeries on time and that I was heading home. Loraine was on the phone when I got to the "command center."

The nurses working the evening shift crowded by the desk waiting for Loraine to give them their surgery assignments. I overheard bits of the telephone conversation. Emergency, cardiac room, vascular tray: Ooh, sounds way more exciting than my productive but uneventful day, I thought to myself.

Loraine hung up the phone and quickly rushed over to the white board. Procedure: Triple A, Surgeon — Dr. G. Ooh, Dr. G, that poor nurse that has to work with him tonight. Well, not my issue. My mind blissfully wandering: Who should I invite over tonight? Should I order from Listrani's or Little China Café?

Those thought bubbles were quickly popped. Loraine turned to three of us, three nurses who had already completed their shift and were more than ready to leave. "So which one of you is it going to be?" "What? She isn't asking us to do the Triple A, is she?" Lisa chimed, "No way, Loraine, you know he threw me out of his room last week. I can't do it, I'm going home." That left Jackie and me. We froze in fear, not moving a muscle, as if staying still was going to make us invisible somehow.

Dr. G, an incredibly talented surgeon but infamously intimidating. Jackie and I had both observed a triple A surgery, but neither of us had ever assisted in a ruptured, abdominal aortic aneurysm. A ruptured triple A is one of the most fatal surgical emergencies, with an overall mortality rate of 90 percent. I knew if the patient had any chance at all for survival, we needed to act fast. The operating room had to be ready, and the instruments needed to be set up. There was going to be bleeding, lots and lots of bleeding. The blood bank needed to be notified and blood products ready and on standby. And grafts, we need grafts to repair the aorta. What size? What type? These were my current thought bubbles. We were wasting precious, valuable seconds. I felt a rush, I felt energized. "I'll do it!" I shouted.

"OH MY WORD! What did I just agree to?" I pondered as I anxiously ran to OR 2.

Hours later, I'm happy to report that the patient survived and I survived Dr. G. Thankfully, that "optimal anxiety" kicked in and possessed me to say "yes" that day. That "optimal anxiety" allowed me to fulfill my duties as a scrub nurse with precision and diligence. Because of that, I was able to further my career. Even though I no longer coasted through my days with straightforward surgeries and I had to invest in TiVo to record my favorite shows, that decision, that day, changed the trajectory of my operating room career. Dr. G and I continued to work together and eventually, on nearing his retirement, he recommended me for the newly forming Transplant Team at Georgetown Hospital. I am proud to say that I participated in numerous kidney and liver transplants, undeterred by the sometimes 15-hour surgeries and getting called in at 3 a.m. Giving patients a chance for longer, healthier lives was priceless. I am honored to have been part of the first living related donor liver transplant performed in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. I continued on the transplant team for years — that is, until my first baby was born, Nico.

Speaking of Nico, I am going to share with you a time he had to leave his comfort zone — a story, I'm sure, many of you can relate to as well. At the time, we lived in a quintessential D.C. neighborhood with our house at the top of a cul-de-sac. Eleven houses, 23 kids, a blue-ribbon school within walking distance — it was ideal. Nico loved Key School, I loved Key School. The teachers were phenomenal, the principal knew every student's name, and it was a true community in every sense of the word.

Pickup from school was outside on the blacktop. Once released to their corresponding adult, students would play on the turf field — some kids played soccer, others football, and there was always a game of capture the flag. It was organized chaos while parents and nannies chitchatted... It resembled a modern-day Norman Rockwell painting.

Nico was in third grade and, unfortunately, Key School ends in fifth, so we needed to start thinking ahead for what would come next. Advice I had received from other moms was to start the process early rather than later. I made a list of schools and made appointments for tours. Nico was not happy — he did not want to leave his friends, his classmates, his teachers. His life as he knew it would change with a new school. And life was really good — he didn't understand why it needed to change. I reassured him, we were only looking right now, doing our research. Nico reluctantly agreed.

Driving toward our first school on the list, I heard disapproving grumbles from the backseat. Choosing to ignore them, I slightly turned up the music. Then, winding down the long driveway, lined with white rocks, all the complaining stopped. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Nico looking around in awe.

"Is this a school?"

"Yes, Nico, we're here!"

I saw his nervous excitement and I was relieved his mood was changing since we were about to meet [Director of Lower School Admissions] Mrs. [Carole] Kerns. Needless to say, Nico did what he does best: He talked and talked and talked. He conversed with Ms. Kerns about books, the New York Jets, even about her newborn grandson, all the while touring the Lower School.

It had been a long and impressive morning but it was time to head back, and I couldn't wait to hear Nico's thoughts. Before I could even ask, before leaving the white rocks, Nico said, "Mom, can I finish third grade here?"

His paradigm had shifted. To humor me, and my need for due diligence, we finished with my list and toured other schools. But no other place impacted Nico quite like Landon, he was all in. He asked if I could withdraw his applications from the other schools.

"But Nico, what if you don't get in to Landon?"

"Mom, I'll just keep trying until I do."

Waiting for the letter to arrive in the mail felt like an eternity... Stepping out of Nico's Key School comfort zone was initially a challenge for him, but was well worth it.

I believe great personal accomplishments are achieved when you step out of your comfort zone. Who knew that anxiety, which usually has a negative connotation, could not only be optimal but I believe a "superpower" used for good. Think about the times you were most proud of an accomplishment. Were you on autopilot mode, cruising along in your comfort zone? Or did you break out of it?

I encourage all of you in here today, young and not so young, to extend yourself, try something new. Encourage one another — sign up for Mark's Run, enter the poetry contest. Whatever it is, just go for it. [Former Middle School Head] Mr. Mac Jacoby, a self-proclaimed klutz on the basketball court, went for it [by taking a half-court shot at the halftime show of an NBA basketball game] and won a car. So go ahead, take that half-court shot — it may just surprise you.