It was 1 a.m. on a Sunday night on call, and we were waiting patiently for admissions in the resident workroom. We were four near-perfect strangers, yet we had one thing in common: our challenges we faced in maintaining relationships. Was it truly because of our shared profession of medicine or because of our similar personalities that led us into the field? We realized we struggled preserving our current relationships as well as starting new ones.
As we transgressed through our medical education, it was evident that we were giving up a lot of our personal life. We missed a large part of our early 20’s social life during medical school. The years went on, and we missed weddings, baby showers, birthdays, and even funerals. In daily life, we worked so many hours that we missed spending time with friends and significant others. Even when we weren’t working, we were tired or pre-occupied with work. Even if we were there physically, we weren’t truly present for the people that mattered most.
That night, we shared stories of the important people we had lost in our lives and wondered if it would’ve happened had we chosen a different field. Could we really be there for everybody at all times? Something had to give, and with our schedules out of our control, it was usually the relationship that made its way onto the backburner. The irony is that we need these relationships to stay above water during the stressful years of our training. Yet the stronger our relationships with our patients became, the weaker our personal relationships became.
I saw an article once with this quote, “Show me a doctor whose wife is happy, and I’ll show you a man who’s neglecting his practice.” It may be difficult, yet here are some simple tips I’ve learned to navigate these important relationships:
1. Prioritize your relationships. Even if you cannot always prioritize in terms of giving your full time and energy, it is important to make sure your significant other and family/friends understand how important they are to you with little gestures such as thoughtful gifts or cards or even just your words to show how much you care.
2. Never tell people they don’t understand (even if it may feel like that sometimes). While it is true that no one outside of medicine has actually walked in your shoes, you can try your best to explain to your loved ones the daily happenings as well as the emotional lability (usually from exhaustion or stress) that can sometimes accompany the field. By telling someone they don’t understand, it creates a greater rift within the relationship, and he/she may stop even trying to understand.
3. Know that training is temporary. While medicine will never be an “easy” field to juggle relationships, and different challenges are presented as you work your way up the ladder, you will have more control over your life once training is completed.
4. Be honest and communicate effectively. Use the tools you have learned in communicating effectively with patients towards your own friends and family. If you do not directly tell them what is happening at work or the stressors that you face, how will they know? And how will they know how to help you (see #2 also)?
5. Carve out the unusual moments to strengthen relationships. Even if your friends are in medicine, it can still be difficult to maintain those relationships. For example, there have been times where my friends who live in another state are on call at night so if I had a free moment at work, I was able to catch up with him/her (when the rest of the world was sleeping). For your non-vampire friends and family that may not be up at night, utilize your commute to talk to friends on the phone. You may not have 30 minutes to talk, but even 5 minutes from time to time can help to maintain an important relationship.
You might ask, “If we cannot even meet our own basic needs sometimes, how can we meet someone else’s?” It may be difficult, yet maintaining strong relationships outside of medicine makes our relationship with our patients even better as we are able to emphasize and connect deeper with individuals. And having the support of friends, family, and significant others allows us to survive and even thrive throughout these rigorous years of training.
Farrell Tobolowsky is an internal medicine resident.
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