Doctors experience the world a bit differently

I was recently in the break room at the hospital scarfing down a power bar between three-hour cases. The truth is, I was multi-tasking: eating, writing on a chart, and checking my email in my phone.

I had received an email from a businesswoman, whom I have known for a few years. She wanted to know if I wanted to join her for lunch next week.

I had to laugh out loud.

The rest of the staff, who were busy also grabbing a quick bite in between patient cases, looked up. I read the email out loud.

“Lunch!?” they all said.

Then, we all did the combo of laughing and shaking our heads.

Doctors don’t “do lunch.”

Even when I am in the office, taking a break and actually leaving the office for lunch is out of the question. On those super busy days, I bring something slightly more like real food to eat than my usual power bar. And I heat up hot water for some tea.

But always, as the water warms for my tea, I complete the morning’s charts, fill out paperwork for surgery the next day, and answer questions from my staff on patient concerns.

So, no. I wouldn’t exactly call this a true “lunch hour.”

The invitation to lunch got me thinking of all the things doctors — and most medical staff — do differently. Here’s a quick list I came up with in a few spare minutes between patients:

We don’t always sleep through the night. Our pagers or phones are at the ready, whether we want them to be or not, for urgent or not so urgent calls, 24/7.

We don’t try to see movies or eat nice dinners out when we are on call. Yes, it’s annoying for others when our phones ring during a movie. But, what’s more disrupting is having to leave the theater at the best part of the movie to meet someone in the emergency room.

We don’t make appointments to take care of our own health. I know I am not alone when I admit that the few times I reluctantly dragged myself to a doctor’s office, I was almost too sick to walk or drive there. I remember a time when my technician insisted I be seen “now!”, I literally asked if there was somewhere I could lie down as soon as I checked in at the front desk. It turned out that I had pneumonia.

Yes, doctors’ lives are different.

But, if you know me at all, you also know that I am going to find a silver lining to this story.

On the flip side of our difference are things doctors get to do that other people never experience.

We get to wear pajamas (some call them scrubs) and comfortable shoes to work. Not always, but most of the time. Sometimes, the soft cloth of the well-worn scrubs are the most comfy part of the day.

We get to hear people’s stories, their fears, their innermost concerns. Our patients trust us. They value us enough to go out on a limb with their own discomfort to seek help.

We get to relieve pain, reduce fear and reassure. Not always. But, arguably, more often than most people.

We are often the first to know. We are in the operating room when the pathologist calls in to report that the lesion thought to be cancer is benign.

We get to be the bearer of great news. We tell the patient and their family the good news of the pathology report.

We get to see the miracle of life when the baby is born. We witness the joy of the parents, and the incredible love-rush that surrounds the entire room, every time.

Yes, doctors experience the world a bit differently.

But, I think it’s a fair trade for eating power bars in the break room during our lunch hour.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist who blogs at Love Medicine Again.

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  • Ron Smith

    Hi, Staria.

    Very good post! Well done!

    Its even more complicated when you are the doctor for someone close in your family. When my Laura was born in 1987 with fetal isotretinoin embryopathy (intrauterine Accutane exposure), her condition was so new that no one, not even all the specialists of the day, new what to expect, how to treat, etc.

    I was Laura’s father, her physician, and her biggest advocate (right behind Stacy, her mother, of course!). Caring for a family member even in circumstances less intense than ours, extols a price, not just in our emotions. Sometimes I would find myself second guessing similar medical decisions for which with a child not my own, I would be profoundly confident.

    Just the other day, one of my nurse practitioners asked me to take a look at a baby with an eye issue. This very young infant was having a wandering, side-to-side gaze with huge pupils. My insides crumbled as soon as I realized the severity of the problem, and Laura’s story rushed back so quickly.

    The practice of medicine is a wonderfully, unique opportunity while at the same time a sometimes horrible responsibility. Don’t let me leave you with the impression that would do it differently. I don’t regret medicine as a career. But this just isn’t like any other job either.

    Warmest regards,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

    • Starla Fitch MD

      Ron Smith, MD – thank you for such a heartfelt story. It is so tough when we have loved ones who have significant medical issues, like your daughter Laura. So difficult to be all things – the wise doctor, the caring father and husband. When I was in fellowship, my dad had tear duct surgery by my attending. My attending sent me out of the O.R., supposedly to check on an emergency patient. But, actually, he could see I wasn’t handling it well and made up that “emergency.” Wise man.

  • Shane Irving

    Great post… Until I started working with Doctors 10 years ago I had no idea what their days were like. I am amazed there isn’t more burnout but like you said there are lots of upsides too. Thanks to all the Docs out there…..

    • Starla Fitch MD

      Shane Irving, thank you from the medical world for your kind words. My favorite reaction to this article so far was from a doctor who tweeted, in response to my comment of “Doctors Don’t Do Lunch” – he replied, “and it is a privilege.” Brought tears to my eyes. There is burnout, for sure, and that is one of the reasons I founded Love Medicine Again, to help guide those who are on the edge or forgetting why we all went into medicine in the first place. Yes, times have changed. A lot. But, we are still very privileged to be able to serve our patients.

  • DoubtfulGuest

    Thank you for this post. It’s helpful for me as a patient to learn something about doctors’ lives. I appreciate that you share a balanced viewpoint with some positive aspects. I wish the public would be more aware of the downsides and stress you all experience. I would not want to go back to the days when I was completely ignorant about that, and I would like to know more.

    • Starla Fitch MD

      DoubtfulGuest, thanks for your note. Yes, doctors’ lives are full and stressful. But, I’m sure yours is, too. Think about the contractors with leaky roofs, plumbers when the pipes break, business people trying to juggle 10 hour days and time with their families. We have all gotten so busy. And, that will likely not change. But, what can change, at least a bit, is acknowledging that to each other. Seeing the world through the other person’s eyes is always enlightening, in my opinion.

  • guest

    Excellent post. I too, am constantly surprised by how many people I know who are astonished that I just don’t have time during my workday to have lunch, run errands, go to the doctor, get to parent-teacher conferences, regularly do not get a full night’s sleep,etc., etc. All in the context of having a job where if I make a mistake in my work, someone could die. Even though I have a job where I am specifically required to be on site all day in case one of my patients has an emergency, people sort of roll their eyes if I say it’s difficult for me to take personal time in the middle of the day for something.

    I think we all like to feel very noble and so don’t talk about how much stress we are under, but that unfortunately creates an incorrect impression with the public that we are being richly paid for jobs where we are out on the golf course on Wednesday afternoons, or something. That impression has been bad for our profession and bad for public policy, which appears to be frequently made based on assumptions that we are all giant slackers. We need to do a better job of speaking up for ourselves and for our profession.

    • Starla Fitch MD

      Guest, thank you for your thoughts. Yes, I have had patients ask if I play golf because when I am in the operating room three days a week, I am “out of the office.” I’m not sure that we are trying to “feel very noble” – I think it may be that we are continuing in the lessons we learned from med school and beyond, to strive for perfection. Tough it out. “Just do it”, as Nike would say. Sometimes this can backfire into mega burnout or overwork, as we can see from those who no longer work in medicine or no longer enjoy their work in medicine. Part of the answer to that may be in the shear recognition of the burnout before the flames hit.

  • DoubtfulGuest

    I’ve read about your Kaiser experience on other posts and can understand why you left. I think guest is onto something, though. Yes, some patients are ungrateful and wouldn’t care to find out what it’s like for you all. It’s harder to do the right things when we can only see ~ 5% of what’s going on. Some of us have our heads…in the sand…for awhile, but are willing to learn. It would be good to know how patients might support you all standing up for yourselves.

  • guest

    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I am treated very decently by my employer, my patients are endlessly interesting, and actually, most of them seem pretty grateful for my care, although they are not there voluntarily. But the job requirements are stressful, I just don’t think there’s any way around that…and it’s stressful to feel like you work in a dying profession and that good jobs like mine will be harder and harder to find as doctors become less like real professionals and more like line workers.

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Practice Balance, thanks for your reply! I had to laugh at eating a salad in 10 minutes – I can’t chew that fast! :-) Your name, “Practice Balance” implies that you have found that balance between patient care and keeping yourself in the “cared for” loop. Kudos!

  • Starla Fitch MD

    Uha1, thank you for your comments. What a great question about finding quality time to spend with your life partner and family. You are so right. If we are not finding time to eat right, are we finding time to nourish our relationships? I don’t pretend to know the answers. For me, it is cherishing the moments. Making sure to greet your partner when you come home. Turning off the TV and phone and listening to how their day was. Taking the time to wave goodbye as they run off to the store. Every little bit counts.

  • greatguy999

    Yep. I love medicine too. I simply can’t wrap my head around what some of my colleagues say about the profession. It’s like someone forced them to choose it. If I were to do it all over again, I’d still choose to be a doctor, though I admit I won’t worry as much as I did in medical school.
    Thank you for a nice article.

    • Starla Fitch MD

      Dear greatguy999, Thank you for your post. I totally hear you when you say some colleagues live to complain. I had a fellow physician say, “This would be a great job, if it weren’t for the patients.” That is the time to think about stepping back and taking a vacation or time to reassess your priorities. We all have those days that wear us to our core. I find that working to keep aligning with my best intentions helps me. Thanks for letting me know that there are still good guys out there who love medicine. The ones who don’t are not bad guys. They just are still finding their way.

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