I have been genuinely blessed by my career in medicine.
When I started medical school, I was living through a very rocky time, dealing with severe, at times suicidal depression. I was working through an outpatient alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, and I was about 40 pounds overweight. I had grown up with a very negative and fatalistic attitude toward life which resulted in chronic misery and a number of personal failures.
As my clinical years began, and I started doing histories and physicals on real patients, I discovered what a lifestyle and attitude like mine could lead to. I saw morbidly obese people, smokers, and drug addicts who had given up on themselves and their lives. They didn’t believe they deserved happiness or health, didn’t believe that joy or relief would ever come their way, and they succumbed to their own self destructive behaviors. This often occurred slowly, excruciatingly, over a number of years.
I do not sit in here in judgment of these people, for they did the best they could with what they could understand and tolerate. They were very powerful teachers; I only wish they had benefited from their experiences the way I had.
I enrolled in a geriatric fellowship program after completing my residency in family medicine out of a desire to serve the senior community, which I so enjoy. By this time, I had shed about 30 pounds, 60 total cholesterol points, and any desire to drink to excess. I exercised on a regular schedule, cleaned up my diet, and instigated a daily spiritual practice of mindfulness and yoga. My attitude, mood, and life transformed such that I barely recognized myself as the woman I’d been just seven years earlier.
Working with a community of relatively healthy seniors sharply contrasted with my experience of the patients at the community hospital. Many of these people were so in love with life that they wanted to do everything in their power to stay healthy. They got educated, participated in their medical care, and challenged themselves to stay both mentally and physically active.
Imagine my delight upon meeting the 98 year old gentleman still bowling in a league once a week. I thought to myself, “He isn’t supposed to be the exception. This is what 98 should look like.”
I then made it a point to ask every patient over the age of 85, who still had his or her mental faculties intact, the secret to a long, healthy life. Without fail, they all said they exercised regularly, didn’t smoke, and limited their alcohol intake. You don’t get to bowl in a league at age 98 purely by good genetics.
Through my experience in caring for these wonderful people, I would also add that they seemed to have an established sense of purpose, a commitment to something they loved, something greater than themselves. My 74 year old mother, who still walks half marathons and volunteers to build bunk beds and dig ditches on mission trips to third world countries, agrees. I intend to be just like my mom when I grow up.
As a physician and on my own life journey, I have been privileged to witness just how miserable, disabling, and depressing life can be when it is lived without purpose, without the ability to see a bigger picture for yourself. I have also seen how exciting, inspiring, and gratifying life can be when lived healthily, beginning from the inside out.
To all of my patients, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have participated in their care and to have learned from their successes and failures. I genuinely hope to be an inspiring senior one day myself.
Melanie Lane is a family physician who blogs at The Doctor Weighs In.
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