As doctors, we are good at lots of things — we are smart, efficient, hard-working, proficient, role models and leaders. Then why do so many of us place our own health and well-being after our jobs?
As a physician, my most prevalent discussions with patients always boil down to very simple recommendations: eat right, exercise, sleep and manage your stress. Lifestyle changes are really the key to solving many of the medical problems in this country. But how many physicians do you know that actually follow this advice themselves? Most doctors I know devote the vast majority of their time to being doctors. Working 80+ hour weeks, working early and late hours, missing family events, sleeping little, skipping meals or eating fast food for time’s sake, fitting in a workout or two when and if they can.
When we were training in residency, do you remember thinking how hard you were working and how you couldn’t wait to finish and be an attending? Little did we know that when we finished our training, we would continue working harder and longer hours than we ever imagined.
As time went on these last few years, I came to feel like a fraud with my patients. Here I was telling them what they needed to do to get healthy and treat or even cure their medical issues — all the while becoming dangerously more unhealthy myself. I let my weight balloon to 275 lbs., never exercised, ate thousands of empty calories and worked so many extra shifts that I had few days off per month.
So I finally did what I have been preaching to my patients for years: I changed. I changed my diet, I started exercising every day, I started to track my calories and macronutrients, I cut back on my shifts at work, I don’t work when I’m at home, and I made sure I was getting 7 hours of sleep regularly. My husband — who has been with me since college and gone through all the ups and downs of me becoming and being a doctor — was stuck in a similar unhealthy rut as well, and we have been brought closer by this experience and have been able to get healthy together.
Let me tell you, though I am still on my journey to good health and lasting impactful change, my life has already been irrevocably and positively altered. It is like I have been reborn after so many years of neglecting myself for the sake of my work. It has been the best possible thing I could have done for myself.
And the icing on the cake is this — it is making me a better physician. Since I cut back on my shifts, I am more engaged at work and am also more genuinely able to connect with patients and their families. Particularly with my many obese or morbidly obese patients, it has helped me connect with them on a very personal and authentic level. This change is not only making me a better doctor but a better human being — and isn’t that what we all strive for?
If you are a doctor that is stressed, unhappy, unhealthy, overworked I encourage you to prioritize your life and put your health first.
Jenny Hartsock is a hospitalist.
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