How a patient saved this physician from losing her passion for medicine

I left a full-time academic position five years ago because I was literally, “check-all-the-boxes,” burned out. In looking back during that time prior to my decision to leave, I recall months of feeling overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, depressed, and in a sense grieved for the loss of what I envisioned my career path to be until retirement. It was not until one of my favorite patients, Mr. Young, who knew me throughout the years as his physician, told me how frightened he was for me and my well-being.

Mr. Young made an appointment for what I thought was going to be routine, follow-up appointment for his hypertension. It was the farthest from what I would ever expect from a patient. Mr. Young said it to me bluntly, “Doc, I am so scared for you. You lost your spark. You look exhausted and I feel you have too much to do and too many people to see. I fear you are not doing well, and I think you have to do something.”

I will never forget that moment. I will never forget how I broke down, first because I thought “wow, is it that obvious?” and second, because Mr. Young gave me this permission to release all the weight I had been carrying around for months and for the first time, I could finally breathe. I had to acknowledge I was experiencing burnout, something colleagues do not discuss amongst each other for fear we may appear weak and lack resiliency. I will be forever grateful to Mr. Young. How brave and compassionate for a patient to have such concern for me, his physician, and to notice me getting close to a dangerous place.

Although it was this encounter which solidified my decision to move on to other opportunities, it was the following weeks after my decision which surprised me the most about my experience.  Shocking to me was the number of female faculty members who told me privately how much they were struggling and how they applauded me to have the courage to walk away. I received many emails from my fellow female colleagues asking me how I made this decision. I was often caught off guard when a colleague wanted to “just ask a few questions” regarding my decision to leave or concerns about their own burnout.

Five years later, I have had amazing opportunities as a leader and teacher in a community-based hospital system. I speak openly to my students, residents, and fellows about self-care and make them aware of the risk of burnout during their careers. I hope to model for them how to have awareness about their limitations and how to ask for help when they feel they are not able to manage another day.

I still think about Mr. Young, who saved me from losing my passion for medicine, my job, and my patients. I also think about my colleagues who reached out to me prior to my departure and have wondered what if they don’t have their own “Mr. Young” to intervene and bring attention to concerning behaviors? I only hope my colleagues continue to feel passion in their everyday practice that remains positive and meaningful for them.

Christine M. Khandelwal is a geriatrician and can be reached on Twitter @pchospicedoc.

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