An open letter to my little sister in medical school

Dear LilSis,

Fifteen years ago, I met your father, Dr. Braxton Wannamaker, when I as a neurology resident at the same institution where you are now a medical student. Dr. Wannamaker mentored me in neurology, epilepsy research, and life. I am blessed that the entire Wannamaker family took me in as an adopted daughter, and that is how I got to meet you, sweet Louise.

The fashion we wore, boys we dated, and our hairstyles have changed over the years. One thing about you remained on course — your unfaltering and admirable determination to become a doctor.

When you found out that you got accepted into medical school, I was healing from physician burnout. I have to admit, I was scared that you were entering a toxic medical system. I worry about you, as I do every little sister battling inside our broken health care system.

What would I have done differently to avoid suffering? Are there secrets to succeeding as a woman in a field where we are earning 69 cents on the dollar compared to our male colleagues? What is the secret sauce to maintaining a personal life outside of our careers without feeling guilty?

Never, ever, ever apologize for being a woman. You will inevitably encounter a few male colleagues, hospital administrators and patients who will belittle you about being a woman in medicine. These people operate on an outdated and sexist code that women should not become physicians, leaders, or even have a voice. The words used to describe female physicians behind our backs and to our faces are “emotional, angry, aggressive, and bitch.” This abusive behavior is one of the reasons physicians are traumatized in our current healthcare system. Hold your head up high, stand your ground, and never apologize for being a woman.

Don’t let anyone else determine your self-worth as a physician. You will meet supervisors and hospital administrators who deem your worth according to financial numbers, patient outcomes, and revenue generated.  There is only one person who determines your self-worth, you. Let me repeat myself LilSis, only you determine your worthiness. When we own our self-worth and fuel our confidence, we are less likely to fall into a victim mentality. How do you connect to your own sense of self-worth? Ask yourself, did you remain true to your morals, values, and the sacred Hippocratic Oath?

Seek out and nurture relationships with female mentors. There is a pink elephant in the physician exam room. Every stage of your life will be planned around your career in medicine. At times, it will feel like your personal life comes secondary to medical school classes, examinations, residency training, and then your job. There are only a few hours a week to dedicate to dating, falling in love, planning a wedding, your marriage, deciding when or if to have children, giving birth, and taking care of elderly parents. At every one of these personal life stages, find another female physician who can share her wisdom, knowledge, and advice. Use another sister’s recipe to create your unique life story. When you figure out what worked and what did not work for your family, pass on that wisdom to another younger sister.

Never forget what inspired you to enter into a career in medicine. Numerous factors contribute to decreased job satisfaction and career burnout in physicians. Our altruistic reasons for becoming physicians quickly can be lost battling with shortened office visit times, the burden of electronic health records systems, and chronic sleep deprivation.

Try this self-reflection technique I teach burned out physicians around the country. As you drive into work every morning, remind yourself of the reasons that you went into medicine.  When you are driving home from work, review your day in your mind. How did you honor the reasons that inspired you to become a physician? Whose life did you touch today? What inspired you today?

Remember that you are not alone. There will be these haunting moments that you feel all alone.  The loneliness amplifies in the middle of the night in the call room, as you drive to work before dawn, or when you witness a patient dying. Take a moment to close your eyes. Remember the moments when all of your loved ones hugged you on your graduation or wedding day.  We love you, and we are all always here for you.

I love you. I believe in you. You got this.

Love,
BigSis

Romila Mushtaq is a neurologist. She shares her story of overcoming physician burnout in her TEDx talk, The Powerful Secret of Your Breath. She blogs at Mind Body Medicine and can be reached on Twitter @DrRomila.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

View 2 Comments >

Most Popular

KevinMD logo - transparent