How to find purpose in the age of burnout


A recent sports injury required me to have surgery. As a cardiothoracic surgeon, my experience as “the patient” reminded me of lessons-learned years ago on finding one’s purpose. You should never underestimate your capacity as a health care professional to dramatically impact the lives of your patients.

As a pre-med in college, I interviewed at Johns Hopkins Medical School under an early decision program. I was beyond excited. After my interview, I returned to my small college in upstate New York and over the next few days became very ill with fever, chills, and the worst headache and neck pain of my life. I visited our college infirmary, was diagnosed with gastroenteritis, prescribed penicillin, and instructed to stay in bed. On a Friday night, alone in my room, and unable to call for help, two fraternity brothers, worried about me, entered my dorm room.

I was lethargic. They rushed me to the ER. I remember sternal rubs, being told to hold still because a needle was going into my back, and recall bright lights and masked people hovering over me and was informed I had a serious infection and could die.

The next few days were spent in ICU isolation with a tube in every orifice, and it was weeks before I was ultimately discharged. In the days before being released, the attending ER doctor that admitted me visited. His name was Dr. McCullom, and he learned I wanted to be a doctor.

Dr. McCullom shared a copy of Harrison’s and highlighted the infection I had- bacterial meningitis. I read how lethal the condition was and how lucky I was to be alive. Since I wanted to be a doctor, he said he had a test for me. He asked me what was 2 +2? I answered 4, and he said, “You will make a great doctor.”

Indeed, I am grateful to Dr. McCullom and the team that helped me that fateful night. They helped me realize my purpose and helped make it possible for a kid from Brooklyn to not only survive meningitis, but also become a physician and thoracic surgeon.

Over 20 years have passed since my near death ordeal, and I still remember Dr. McCullom, his encouragement, and the lessons learned about human care that being a patient taught me. My experience taught me about empathy — and what it feels like — to be a patient.

The average physician may have 80,000 to 100,000 patient encounters over a typical career. Thus, there are potentially 100,000 similar stories that patients could share like mine of the impact their healthcare encounter had on their life. Not all encounters will be as involved as mine. However, in my own career, I realize the work we do in this great profession engenders an incredible power and a gift to impact and affect the lives of others in a very meaningful way. Make every encounter count and help others find their purpose.

Hassan A. Tetteh is a cardiothoracic surgeon and chief medical officer, MedNeuro Media. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Hassan Tetteh, and on Twitter @doctortetteh. He is the author of Gifts of the Heart.

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