If you have been following my writing, you know I have been out of the surgical workforce for a year and a half. I have settled into a much more relaxing lifestyle as an author who can set his own work schedule. This week I got a flashback of what my old life was like as a general surgeon when I attended a four-day conference called FinCon.
Each morning of the conference, I awoke to an alarm before my body was done sleeping. I quickly showered, ate some breakfast, and kissed my wife goodbye while she was still in bed. Then I got in my car and drove to the conference. In between sessions, other attendees wanted to talk with me in the hall so I was frequently late getting to the next session.
When the conference took a break for lunch, I ran into others who wanted some of my time, so we ended up standing in the hallway talking. When it was time for the next session to begin, I realized that I missed my chance to eat lunch. So between the afternoon lectures, I would scout out what was available to snack on. I found cookies and candy bars available to eat. Not the best choice, but it kept me going until my next meal. Unfortunately, the same thing happened at dinner time and I missed another meal. Each evening, after the conference had ended for the day, there were still people who wanted to indulge in conversation.
By the time I finally left, very tired, I missed my turn and needed my phone to recalculate a new route a few times before reaching the timeshare near midnight. My wife was in the same place she was when I left. I crawled into bed beside her and read a little to decompress before falling asleep. Then the alarm would sound to start that same routine all over again.
After four days of this, I was exhausted. The first time I saw my wife out of bed was the day after the conference ended. After sleeping in, we spent most of the day sitting on the couch watching Hallmark movies. I even dosed occasionally. It took me two days to fully recover from the conference.
Lying in bed the morning of the second day after the conference, I realized that attending this conference resembled my past life as a surgeon. I would get up early, before my body was done sleeping, and head off to work. I often worked right through lunch or ate my lunch walking down the hospital corridor. I also missed many dinners. More often than I would like to admit, I didn’t get back home until my family was fast asleep.
My days at the conference were relatively stress-free. I didn’t have to make life and death decisions, or tell someone their family member was going to die, or field phone calls during my sleeping hours. Overall, the conference was easier on me than my surgery career.
Since I was away from home and my wife knew she wouldn’t be seeing me for the four days of the conference, I didn’t need to work in family time. But during my career, I needed to save some time for my wife. I also worked in time with my kids and time attending their activities. Not to mention spending time with friends and extended family. I look back and wonder how I did it.
Life as a surgeon is incredibly difficult. The strain on your body, the stress level in your mind, and the lack of time to do things you enjoy can really add up. It’s no wonder we have such a high prevalence of burnout, nearly 50 percent. It is very difficult to keep up that schedule for any length of time.
These four days reminded me of how ridiculous it is to suggest that you should pick a high paying specialty. Don’t ever listen to that advice. You need to pick a specialty that you love to do, because it just might become everything you do. Imagine going through a schedule like this and not liking the work you do. What a miserable life that would be.
I wrote an article about the things I learned in the first six months of my retirement. One of those things was discovering that I had suffered from chronic sleep deprivation. Many doctors suffer from sleep deprivation and don’t even know it. I didn’t know it until after I was off work for a few months and finally recovered.
Burnout and suicide in the medical field are very big and real problems. Picking a specialty you don’t like, only because it pays well contributes to these problems. Acquiring and retaining debt so you continually have a need to work more hours, along with skipping vacations so you can pay the bills are also contributors. Buying a house that is too expensive creates a financial ripple that lasts decades and contributes as well. Moonlighting to make more money when you are already overworked is another contributor. Buying things you can’t afford, like private school for the kids, expensive cars and lavish vacations, are more contributors.
We all have tough jobs. I was reminded of how tough it is when I went back to a taxing schedule for a few days. The contrast was incredible. We must not compound the difficulty of an already tough job, by making bad decisions that make our job even tougher.
Some aspects that make our lives in the medical field difficult cannot be avoided, like dealing with patient issues and death. You will need to take your share of the call. There will be long days. But you do not need to compound your busy schedule by adding extra stress of your own making.
You deserve to live a great life, so design your life’s work to create the life you want. You will make a good income, so use it to reach your personal and financial goals. Stop trying to keep up with the Doctor Joneses and start living your own life, the way you want it to be. Work out ways to spend time with your family. Life isn’t just about work. Take your vacations. Make time to exercise. Work on becoming financially independent, which will give you more options in both your work life and your home life. Financial independence will enable you to stand up to your employer giving you the leverage to call the shots that are important to you.
Life is too short for the nonsense that many of us put up with or create. Smell the roses. Hug your children. Call your parents. Live a good life. Make your life more than going to work every day.
At the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan, an elder Ryan stood in front of the grave of a man who gave his life so that Ryan could live and said: “I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
Please live your life the best you can, and don’t spend it all in the hospital. As important as the work you do is, it’s not everything. Make sure you take time to rest, relax and rejuvenate. Spend time with family and friends, make plans and follow your dreams. Don’t let work take over your life.
Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett. He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice Right, The Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt, and The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement.
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