How acknowledging others can keep us from burning out

Last Thursday I got up at 5 a.m. to bake a lasagna. Admittedly, lasagna for breakfast is not my typical go-to, but last Thursday was the last session of a year-long advanced faculty development course on teaching skills that I co-direct and teach.

In one of our first sessions of the year, we used the ice-breaker, “What would you choose for your last meal?” In the past, when I’ve asked this question, the answers have ranged from PB&J to Briyani. This time though, nearly all the answers were the same: lasagna. So I thought it fitting to end the course with that same meal, time of day be damned.

After the lasagna was served, we jumped into our discussion on educational philosophies. About halfway through our discussion, one of the faculty took a quiet moment to pause and present me with a gift: a beautiful glass plaque to recognize my teaching.

In a matter of seconds, I went from discussing educational philosophies with composure and poise to smeared mascara and tears. Sure, I’ve won teaching awards before, but this was very, very different. My learners are faculty from different departments on a very large campus whose paths only cross when they come to my class. Most have never met before, even though many have worked at the institution for years. Despite these barriers, they organized a plan. They decided on a gift. They took time out of their day to sign a card with words of thanks, to have a plaque engraved just for me, even place it in a gift bag. I can’t imagine how they could have organized and coordinated all this to make the gift a reality.

But they did.

They took the time to see me.  To see how much I love to teach.  How much I love teaching them.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t even know I needed that moment until it happened.

Their quiet, simple acknowledgment has fed my soul since then and will continue to do so for years to come. And as so often happens when we teach, yet again, I have become the student.

That moment has also left me asking myself: Who can I see today? Who can I recognize? Who can I acknowledge?

We work in a profession of service and caregiving, often with no expectation of acknowledgment or thanks. When a patient turns to us to say thank you, it still takes my breath away. But patients are often distracted, focused on their recoveries and healing (as they should be), which means those words of thanks often remain unspoken.

But what if we didn’t allow that praise to remain silent? What if we started seeing each other more? What if we made it a point to acknowledge all how we witness our colleagues going the extra mile every day? All the ways in which we see their passion play out in their work?

To the administrative assistant who always makes sure there are granola bars in the office kitchen in case we didn’t have time for lunch: I see you.

To the medical student who’s unsure and afraid and wondering if she’s enough and keeps working at it anyway: I see you.

To the resident who keeps researching to find the reason for that guy’s symptoms: I see you.

To the nurse who goes back to check on that patient even after he said all those unkind words: I see you.

And to the attending who stays late because “they need to hear the results from me”: I see you.

Thank you for all the ways you show you care through your work.  I see you.  I see you all.

Erica Howe is a hospitalist and founder, Women Physicians Wellness Conference, and CEO, The Medical Educator.

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