“Jeff, turn my headphones up.”
There is a peace and tranquility to the recording booth before the beat drops. A heavy bass and drum kick in, signaling me to bark gravelly lyrics into a state-of-the-art microphone with hopes that it sounds passable. Over the past year, my rhymes have gone from clunky to less clunky, and for a few moments, they weave between melodic insightfulness and relatable humor. Embedded within these songs are the familiar hip-hop themes of rags-to-riches struggles and hyperbole coupled with an aggressive baritone that belies my soft-spoken nature in clinic. It’s fun. It’s different. And I’ve found it to be important to my health.
Like many residents and fellows, I spent a large portion of my orthopaedic surgery training buried in documentation and administrative work. I complained like everyone else, but the unwritten contract of medical education stood firm: Do the grunt work, and we’ll teach you surgery. My Harvard education in biostatistics proved relatively useless during this time as I did the same mundane tasks everyone else does in residency—update patient lists, write notes, call consults and generally keep my bosses happy. At the end of my training, I received an excellent surgical education, and I’m thankful for it. What my co-residents and I didn’t receive was an education on how to be happy in the present.
Throughout medical school and post-graduate education, we are under the impression that once our training is over, we’ll be financially solvent, autonomous and our problems will go away. Medical education thrives on the dream of delayed gratification. However, the words of rap legend Notorious B.I.G. more appropriately summarize the practice of medicine: “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Once I started my career as an attending surgeon, I felt pressure to ramp up clinical volume in order to acquire partnership in my group. I made partner. I passed my board exam. I became a team doctor for the Chicago Bulls. I published research papers and trained residents. There was little left to accomplish in the field and overall, I liked my job. Yet I spent a fair amount of time worrying about whether I was seeing enough patients to financially support my staff. And what would my partners think of me if I couldn’t pull my own weight? The stressors were different, but they were still there.
I ask each patient of mine what they do for a living and what they do for fun. Shockingly, about half of these patients say they don’t really have hobbies. My physician assistant then posed this question to me, and I was equally shocked to realize that I don’t have hobbies. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t taken a vacation in over ten years. I had to make a change, and I couldn’t wait for this utopian practice that may never arrive.
My colleagues have a variety of interests ranging from skiing and golfing to restoring vintage cars. I didn’t grow up with any of those things. But I always loved music. I decided to become involved in the Chicago hip-hop scene despite being unable to read music, sing, or play an instrument. I frequented underground concerts and slowly made friends with musicians and other creatives. They were so different from me. Years of medical training molded me into a regimented planner, whereas these carefree artists went with the flow and enjoyed the moment. I was envious but hopeful that I could fit in, so I started a fledgling record label to support local talent. Despite the trendy logo (a suave lion with headphones) and fashionable merchandise, I struggled to find artists who were willing to embrace my vision. So I did what any good resident would do when he can’t find someone to help him: I did it myself. I read and watched videos about rapping then listened to my favorite artists to dissect their inflections, rhyme schemes and cadence with surgical precision until I was able to emulate them. Just like performing surgery, the first rap attempt was acceptable, but subsequent verses improved considerably with practice. In order to take quality pictures for the record label’s Instagram presence, I learned more about photography and a second collinear hobby was born.
I anticipated picking up hobbies would slow my practice down, but paradoxically the clinic has flourished. Select patients who inquire are often ecstatic to find that I have outside interests because they humanize a physician. An ancillary benefit of dealing with whimsical free spirits on the weekend is that it has made me appreciative of the reliable and organized colleagues at my day job. I have always enjoyed going to work and helping people, but now I enjoy doing things to help myself as well. My advice to trainees and practitioners at every level is not to delay your happiness and instead take time to find it now. In medicine, tomorrow is a fantasy.
It is never too late to rewrite your song.
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