When I walked into my first shift on labor and delivery as a brand new OB/GYN intern, complete with a freshly starched white coat, I was 33 weeks pregnant. As I listened to my chief resident effortlessly sign out the labor board, I was terrified. As the words pre-eclampsia, chorioamnionitis, and postpartum hemorrhage swirled around the room, I couldn’t get my heart rate under control. “They already hate me,” I thought as I tried to avoid eye contact with the faculty and other resident physicians in the conference room. My thoughts continued to spiral: “My pregnancy is a burden to them, I hope they don’t think I am lazy, I will have to work every call shift from now until I deliver to prove my worth.” I wasn’t even 24 hours in, and I was already experiencing what almost every physician faces at some point in their career, burnout.
In the midst of my self-doubt and self-hate, an unlikely hero emerged: my residency. Shortly after starting intern year, I gave birth to my son (during the middle of a shift to be exact). I was overwhelmed with support from the moment I settled into my postpartum room. Faculty I had never met were already emailing me. Some for congratulations, and others offering a kind of support that I never thought was possible from staff physicians. A friendship and mentorship aimed not at my productivity and long-term career goals, but rather at developing and fostering two traits far more important than any fellowship acceptance: wellness and resilience.
For my six weeks of maternity leave, I was flooded with requests for help, all of which were gladly accepted as I was more than 1,500 miles away from my nearest family. I returned to work in September. I had never been happier in my life.
For the next year, I slowly began to realize how lucky I was to be training at an institution who had poetically built a culture of equality, encouragement, and altruism. My friends from programs across the country would call me in tears every so often. I listened as they recanted stories of standing at the front of a conference room with bullets of questions being shot at them from all directions. My friend gasping for air in between her cries as she told me she once answered a question wrong, and the most respected OB/GYN in the room told her she needed to go back to medical school. In front of her mentors, peers, and future colleagues. She continued on to say she thought about driving her car off the road on the way home. She was ten weeks into intern year.
My story was much different. Faculty who made sure I had lunch every day. Who encouraged an open learning environment and printed out resources for me when I was confused about patient management. Co-residents who bought me flowers on my first day back to work from maternity leave and made every effort to let me leave as early as possible while my son was still in the newborn phase. A department chair who told me she was proud of me. A department chair who was proud of her resident for something completely unrelated to the field of medicine. Proud of pursuing my life to the fullest.
Sadly, I have come to learn my experience falls in the minority. Day after day, resident physicians across the country are attending wellness lectures where a common theme is shared. “These are the signs of burnout, and this is what you can change about yourself to fix the symptoms.” It is a dangerous message to send to young physicians. A message that implies there is something inherently wrong with you. Burnout is your fault.
As I look back on my intern year, everything seems like a blur. I joke with friends and family that I am not quite sure how I survived being a new mom and a new intern, but the truth is I do. I was surrounded by people who were so deeply invested in my physical, mental and emotional health that I had no choice but to succeed.
I am forever grateful to the faculty and resident physicians that I spend a large majority of my time with on a day to day basis. These are the people on the front lines of a war that some refuse to acknowledge. A war between those striving to help others and the enemy that continues to turn outstanding physicians into cynical, depressed, and suicidal human beings. The health care system. And while this war is being waged, the most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to surround yourself with people who are willing to fight alongside you. Though, sadly, I have come to learn that fewer and fewer of those people exist. Burnout continues to rid this country of the hope, compassion, and idealism of those we need most. Doctors.
When people ask me how I did it, how I managed to stay happy and resilient in medicine, the answer is simple. I am well not because of myself or my strength, but because of the strength and support of those around me. Until the health care system changes, we must acknowledge that we are in this together. Continue to fight side by side while lending support, encouragement, and compassion. For now, that alone is the key to achieving wellness.
Emily Jacobs is an obstetrician-gynecology resident.
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