Dr. Jack Zimmerman is a retired cardiothoracic surgeon who performed some of the first successful open heart surgeries at Johns Hopkins in the 1950’s. Dr. Zimmerman brings a unique medical point of view that offers a new perspective on what it means to be vulnerable, physiologically. Here, he introduces us to the topic of fear and fear of risk in being vulnerable, but also what is to gain from it. 
Vulnerability means to be at risk of something. In medicine, lack of vaccination makes one vulnerable to infection and hazardous behavior puts one at risk for injury. As a surgeon, I knew that a significant part of preoperative preparation for a patient was determining vulnerability to complications. For the diabetic there was increased risk of infection, for the individual with COPD a heightened chance of pneumonia, and for the patient with coronary artery disease a greater possibility of heart attack. Both surgeon and patient have responsibilities and tasks to minimize risk. So also, in much of life we must do what we can to decrease many forms of risk.

On a personal level for me, vulnerability takes on a different dimension. Like most children and adolescents, as a youth I felt indestructible. Furthermore, most things came easily to me, whether it was making a team I wanted to be on or learning a useful skill. (An exception was school work, but I chose not to let this bother me.) Even as an 18 year old being trained in hand-to-hand combat during infantry basic training in the 1940’s, I don’t recall feelings of vulnerability. It was later in life that I gradually became risk sensitive. With maturity came an awareness that failure was possible and that is what has shaped my concept of vulnerability.

As an adult I have felt vulnerable whenever there is a chance I could fail – or perform below a largely self-defined standard. However, with this has come a realization that unless we take risks we are failing to live to our full potential. To always “play it safe” means missing opportunities to advance ourselves and others. The world would be a much poorer place had not folks been willing to “go out on a limb.” An obvious extreme example is that our country would not exist had our founding fathers not been willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to a cause. For most of us, the risks are usually much simpler, but the failure to take them robs progress, even if just for ourselves. In short, vulnerability is a key element of improvement.

Dr. Jack Zimmerman can be reached here for comments or feedback.
We’re honored to have his wise input on this subject.

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