You signed up to be a doctor, not a martyr

Dear doctor,

I need you to be healthy. When I come to you for help, I need your “A” game. I need you sleep enough. Eat healthy food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables. I need you to exercise regularly and take time to take care of your own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. I need to you use the bathroom when you need to. I need you to stop and take a deep breath when you are frustrated. I need you to deal with your relationships in healthy ways. Get the help you need to be healthy. Take time for yourself. Find quiet space for creativity. Enjoy the sun on your cheeks on occasion.

I need you to laugh with your loved ones. Be there physically and emotionally, even when they don’t need you, and there is no crisis. I need you to accept yourself as human, be gentle and loving to yourself, don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes. Learn from mistakes and move on. Don’t repeat them. I need you to be at your best. If you don’t take care of your own needs, how can you take care of mine? And for how long can you keep it up? I need you to be healthy so that you can do what you are here to do — practice medicine, in the best way that you can.

Oh, I know you think you can do it all. You’ve been “doing it all” for years. Your colleagues and friends “do it all. “ Work days and nights and days again without sleep.  Watch a video of your child’s first steps and tell yourself you will see the next ones in person. Consider lunch a granola bar eaten in the hallway while walking to the next ward. It’s a big deal that you stoop long enough to pump breastmilk for the nanny to give to your baby. This makes your colleagues uncomfortable  not because you are breastfeeding but rather because you are tending to your own bodily need when they are ignoring theirs.

If you are lucky, you have that spouse at home taking care of everything. And he/she will think that your occasional time together and last-minute but sincere gestures are enough. For awhile. And then what. I know you think you can’t make time for exercise. The EMR is inefficient and charts have to get done. Besides, let’s just admit there are things about your work that are just plain fun and it’s easy to want to jump right in. Then a week or a month or a year goes by, and you realize that you really don’t exercise very much anymore. Or see friends outside of work. You text them, that counts. You remember to call your mother, so you must be doing something right most of the time.

Patients need you. You can’t walk away from that. There are millions of reasons why you don’t take care of yourself, get burned out at sky-high rates, commit suicide, get divorced, have health problems. If you don’t prioritize your own health, no one will. You’re a physician in one of the most affluent countries on the globe. If you don’t vote with your actions, who can?

When I come into your ED with chest pain, or bring my father in for surgery, or my son in to deal with the fracture, I want your best. No more stinking, wrinkled 30-hour old scrubs. No more bags under the eyes. No more neglected relationships, no more constantly working late, no more being overweight and out of shape. We all need you. Change your habits. Change the system. Do what it takes, we all have a lot riding on you. You signed up to be a doctor, not a martyr.

Sincerely,

Your next patient

Kathy Stepien is a pediatrician who blogs at the Institute for Physician Wellness.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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