3 lessons physicians can learn from adversity

This time last year, I took the podium at conferences as far away as Dubai to deliver my keynote speech entitled, “On The Cusp Of Life And Death, Choose Life.” My talk highlighted the professional and personal development opportunities that show up as doctors, nurses, and parents navigate the challenges in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) caring for preterm and term newborns on the cusp of viability due to gestational age or diagnosis.

At that time, I didn’t know that I would have to draw on those lessons when it came to my own family. I hadn’t known that the patient experiences that I was privileged to be a part of and the opportunities to coach and hold the space for people to process the impact that illness and medicine has in their life, was heading full circle to land at my feet as I support a family member with a diagnosis that carries a poor prognosis.

Even as a doctor, this journey is filled with mental and emotional upset.  It’s a dance of the knowledge I know and the information gained from researching deeper into the diagnosis coupled with what the patient understands. The availability of new technologies, medications, and support systems has shifted the conversation.  There is a difference between waiting for death and choosing life. And I’m not sure I fully got that until now.  As a hospitalist in the NICU and working with babies, my view was narrow.  Modern medicine lets us expand our focus to live with chronic illnesses beyond the walls of the hospital. In essence, to choose life.

There are lessons to learn in choosing life.  Once learned, it’s time to implement them. I’m still in that process.  We all are.  And the process doesn’t end.  Once we get these lessons, new ones reveal themselves.  On this part of my journey, I am learning that:

1. Isolation is the number one killer of dreams.  When faced with a challenge, illness, or something unwanted, there seems to be this natural human tendency to go into seclusion, to hide. We don’t want others to know that we are vulnerable, that we may need help, or we can’t do what we once did.  When we isolate ourselves, we cut off the flow of new ideas, possibilities, and life.  Rather than shut down, reach out.  Talk to someone. Connect to a family member, friend, or a professional who can support and give you the space to share your feelings.

2. There is a reason for everything. There is a purpose for all parts of our journey.  When we agonize over thoughts of why me, it overshadows our ability to find the meaning.  It is difficult to imagine that illness and challenges have a purpose in our lives, yet they do.  We may not like our present condition and circumstances, but when we surrender to the circumstances, the reason can be revealed.  Maybe it is to mend a relationship. Maybe it is to move on to another position.  Maybe there is another opportunity that is far better suited for us.  There is something to learn in the midst of the pain, and once learned, we find new strength.

3. Celebrate life.  Life is a walk of faith.  Faith allows us to believe in possibilities before we see it.  See beyond the adversity by celebrating the best that life has already brought to the doorstep.  Celebrate the career and the knowledge already acquired during medical school and training. Appreciate the help received along the way. Remember the privilege it is when patients trust you to be their doctor, even in the face of difficult patient encounters. And then know that there are more people, places, and opportunities coming your way to allow you to live more fully into your dreams and desires. Have faith.

Stephanie Wellington is a physician and can be reached at Nurturing MDs.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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