The other day I was sitting at home looking out the window at an achingly crisp, clear blue sky. A slight, cool breeze was wafting through that open window, and faint birdsong accented a view of tree tops in blooms of pink, red, and white. The blue-tinged mountains were hovering in the distance, proud and majestic.
Only, no. I was actually at work. Underground. In front of a computer screen, whose glare of artificial lights was diligently nurturing a growing headache behind my eyes. It was also raining that day, if I recall.
I wish I could say that days like that are rare and that 99 percent of the time I wake up chipper, well-rested, and eager to go to work. I also wish that I could say that I nearly always return home at the end of the day confident in a job well done and completely satisfied with my life choices. I would also like a superpower: Teleportation would be nice.
For three years now, residency has shown me many ups and even more downs. Medical training is a grind. In the analogy of a stone mill, we are probably the wheat: forced to shed all of our protective coating and subjected to intense pressure to produce a more uniform and versatile product. Actually, it may be more apt to say that we are ground.
And I think we all get it. Physicians are held to a higher standard ethically, professionally, and interpersonally. The priority of a training program is to produce good quality doctors and not necessarily happy, well-adjusted doctors. If you can do both, great! But one out of two ain’t bad. Look, we’re not going to change decades of medical tradition with a blog post. So, in this last blog post of residency, I just want to relay some of the thoughts that have kept me sane for these past three years.
Gratitude, I’ve found, is the most important key to wellness. It gives perspective when things are bleak and meaning to 80-hour work weeks. I feel grateful for many things. I am living in a pretty part of the country. Nature is never more than 15 to 20 minutes away. I have the opportunity to work with wonderful, intelligent, and caring people in all stages of their careers and my job is one in which I can realistically better myself in objective ways throughout my life. I’m thankful for the family and friends who have believed in me and what I do more consistently than I have.
Food is plentiful: I can eat avocados when it is snowing, blueberries year round, and meals from a dozen different cultures are within a 20-minute drive. In the past few years, I have “gained a few pounds” which is amazing if you think about it. I have access to excess calories to the point where it takes effort to have a negative energy balance which is something virtually unheard of in the history of humanity.
We are blessed to live in interesting times. New planets are being discovered regularly, a manned mission to Mars is probable in my lifetime, and there exists such a powerful drive to make the country and world better for coming generations that it feels impossible not to be optimistic about the future.
Now at the end of residency, I am even grateful for the long nights and difficult situations which have allowed me to explore all manner of negative emotions directed towards me or others.
To leave things here, for all current residents: There is light at the end of the tunnel. Life can be meaningful even in the midst of residency. I encourage all of you to explore the things in life that you are grateful for and I wish all of you lives full of reciprocated affection.
Karl Chen is a family physician. This article originally appeared in Family Medicine Vital Signs.
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