“What took you so long? I’d have thought you would address this issue sooner.”
I felt a like a scolded child sitting in the principal’s office. In fact, the small couch I was sitting on rested nearly a foot lower than the chair on which he perched. All the while, the exam table glared back with unfriendly eyes.
I smirked and tossed the question back in his lap with a degree of intimation.
“Let me get this correct. You are triple boarded and a professor at a world-renowned institution. So when is the last time you saw a doctor?”
He raised an eyebrow, and we both laughed. He noted that he sees a doctor in the mirror every morning and all is well. It is that very sentiment that landed me in the mess I am currently living.
Over the last twenty years of working in the halls of medicine, I have seen many a professional sacrifice their health and relationships for a variety of reasons. Colleagues, mentors, and close friends made choices that launched them on seemingly irreversible and destructive paths. Their deaths are still painful all these decades later.
I freely admit to possessing a sense of invincibility and ignorance that I would be the first to know if and when a problem was arising. The current reality dictates a vastly different story. In hindsight, there are a few things I would do differently.
Listen to my mentors
Young physicians feel a sense of empowerment. We are learning new skills and procedures, impacting and saving lives while working horrendous hours.
I was warned that a shift longer than twelve hours would damage my health in ways beyond just fatigue. While working fewer shifts had its appeal, weekends evaporated without the opportunity to exercise or get proper rest. Some pounds accumulated right along with sleep debt. The blood pressure crept up slowly along with a bit of insulin resistance. Decades later, the damage is complete.
Understand that life is more than a career
It is said that man trades his health and life for money, then spends all his money trying to get his health and life back. Time waits for no one. Seasons change and children grow up too fast.
Physicians right out of residency often mistake the type of race they are running. A career in medicine is a marathon and must be approached with that mentality. Kids do remember that you missed Christmas and more birthdays than not. An important date or two can slide by while taking call or operating on a challenging case. The fog of exhaustion will make you forget, but those close to you bear the scars as well.
It all starts with you
Perhaps residency and hospital-based wellness programs have improved in recent times, but I don’t see many healthcare professionals adopting this wholeheartedly. We push ourselves, take on too much, ignore warning signs and persevere – just like we were trained to do.
I would love to rewind the clock and work a bit less, skip a few more meetings, and grab an afternoon nap as often as possible. I’d like to think I would ignore the lure of a nice bonus check and take an extra vacation with the kids. Instead of moonlighting to get those student loans erased, I’d take a long, slow walk with my wife and just sit quietly watching the sunset.
The hands of time wait for no one. Choose to spend those moments wisely with contemplation and great care.
Mitchel Schwindt is an emergency physician. This article originally appeared in the Healthcare Career Resources Blog.
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