Is work-life balance possible for doctors?

Running has been a constant in my life, and it always will be. I’ve gone on runs in snowstorms and 100-plus degree heat waves, Christmas mornings and birthdays. That hour or so dedicated to running is sacred, reserved for a few minutes to clear my head, a sort of reset button to each day. I’m surrounded by nothing but the sound of shoes hitting the pavement and gasps of heavy breaths.

But medical training forces you to rearrange your life, and you soon find out that there are no exceptions. These days, the siren’s call to dive head-first into bed after work is almost irresistible, especially on call days when we’d often stay at the hospital before the sun rises and long after it goes down. And though I’ve so far been able to muster enough willpower to go for a quick run around our campus, those runs aren’t the same as before. Instead of a peaceful retreat into nothingness, my mind churns out hypotheticals about my patients from that day.

Is the medication that we gave them working? Will the MRI show a brain mass? Will they finally be able to go home tomorrow? Will they even survive the night?

That seems to be what medicine does so well: It creeps into all corners of your life without you noticing. Before we realize, our close friends are our classmates, and soon they become our fellow residents. Dinner is eaten while reading medical texts. Casual conversations revolve around stories in the hospital or the day’s interesting cases. Medical scrubs become a staple in our weekly wardrobes. Weddings of close friends are skipped. Relationships are neglected.

Work-life balance may a ubiquitous buzzword these days in medicine, but can it exist when medicine and our personal lives are so intertwined?

Medicine doesn’t know its boundaries and no matter how tall we build the walls around our personal lives, they eventually crumble. As medical students, we haven’t felt the full extent of medicine’s reach into our lives yet, but we can sense it coming.

I see my interns and residents spending their weekends at the hospital. They tell me stories of their pager’s alarm exploding at two o’clock in the morning with an ominous message warning them that one of their patient’s blood pressures dropped precipitously low, disturbing what precious little sleep that they already don’t have. My senior resident, who is exceptionally caring and thoughtful and a role model for any medical student, would stay an extra hour after we left to go over the orders for the day to make sure each one was correct. And I would receive messages from her on her day off asking how our patients are doing.

And those days off aren’t really days off – they’re precious timeouts to recuperate for the next week and the week after that. They’re used to catch up on errands, to do laundry, buy groceries, to try to clear their minds.

Even though our bodies may have physically left the hospital and our pagers are silenced, our minds don’t have the luxury to leave each night — and neither do our patients. We shouldn’t flee from this obsession with our patients, their diseases, and their prognoses, and we should fear not medicine’s growing presence in our lives. After all, we made vows to serve our patients to the best of our ability before we started medical school.

No, my runs aren’t the same anymore. After a long day on my feet around the hospital, I can’t keep a brisk pace and my mind invariably wanders back to my patients. Compared to our patients’ travails, medicine’s intrusion in our personal lives is a mere inconvenience. It’s a worthwhile sacrifice that we should make and even embrace.

Steven Zhang is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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