What car racing taught me about physician burnout

Back in 2016, my hospital, also my employer, changed the EMR. I was fully integrated into another EMR, so changing was not on my to-do list in the later part of my career as a diabetologist.

As you would expect, the transition was a nightmare and took me to a new low in my life. Crying in my wine became my new norm. I became distraught, felt imprisoned, and felt that no one was listening to my frustrations with the EMR that was holding me back as a specialist. After six months, nothing was changing, no one was listening, my patients could tell I wasn’t happy, and my prison walls were caving in. I resigned after 25 years of service. I felt I had no other way to save myself.

So, when the VP of the hospital showed up to help me close down my practice, he said something to me that I’d never heard from a hospital administrator. He said, “What will it take for you to stay?” He arranged for real experts from Epic to come and fix the EMR for me, but he was offering more. He supported my desire to work with a coach as I knew I needed help. I completed 12 months of coaching and started to change the direction of my life as a practicing physician. I drank less and cried less and finally smiled more. I felt the difference, and so did everyone around me. Most importantly, I was grateful that the hospital rescued me and helped to facilitate my recovery.

So, it’s now three years later. I returned back to road racing, which I had been missing so much. I hadn’t been on a track for over four years — something was calling me back.

I did a few car modifications, loaded my car on the trailer, and took off to see if I could still race. I had an instructor with me just to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. I had a blast.

What have I learned over the past three years? Road racing can teach us a lot about recovery from burnout. Really it can.

First, choose to get into the race. Participate in the process of your recovery. This is your burnout, and it belongs to you. Don’t blame anyone — own it.

Just like I modify and prepare my car for racing, I modified my thoughts and prepared to go in another direction. I had to. I was at a fork in the road. I choose to think differently, and I choose to change and move in a different direction. I did my own homework and prepared myself for new possibilities that were waiting for me.

Before you get on the track, study the map. Know your braking zones, where to apex a turn, and where to pass. But be comfortable racing offline. Everybody’s recovery process will be different. There are many right ways to move through burnout. Choose to navigate the turns with your employer. Make sure they are aware of your struggles, know what you need to heal, and ask for it. Prepare to negotiate.

All new drivers will have an instructor in the car with them for several sessions until they are promoted to drive alone. Link up with a coach, participate in wellness sessions or retreats, read books on burnout and recovery. Allow someone to help you navigate the course. A passenger is always welcomed in my car.

Watch the flag stations. Pay attention to the warnings that you are experiencing. Being blacked flagged is never fun. It means there is something wrong with your car or how you are driving. Pit and expect to get a talking to. Your bad behavior may create more uncomfortable, difficult discussions about your issues. Be prepared for the talk. Yellow flags are cautions that we can’t ignore. If you are short-fused, tearful, drinking more, more depressed, anxious, full of negative emotions, then pay attention to these yellow flags. If you ignore the yellow flags, you could be headed into a danger zone that could be devastating, not just to you, but those around you.

Now one flag that upsets me the most on the track is getting the blue flag — that means I’m slow, and a faster car wants to pass. I don’t like being passed over because I’m slower. But, swimming in burnout slows you down and causes us to miss out on opportunities. We’ll be passed over when we aren’t well and are performing sub-optimally. I hate blue flags.

When the car is overheating, you are getting tired of making some mistakes — pit. Come in and let the car cool, rest, hydrate, take a break. Give yourself permission to take time off, service yourself, and rethink your approach to the course. Give yourself permission to take two weeks for a vacation, go to a wellness retreat/meeting, exercise, meditate, do yoga. Take a break. Connect with someone. Avoid isolation.

No road rage while you are racing. Anger will get you nowhere. In fact, it could get you killed on the track. Anger could hurt a patient or colleague or loved one. Ultimately, it will hurt you.

When you do come into the pits, slow down to second gear. Be patient with the recovery process. Measure your success in months to a year. It takes time to figure out what is important to you. You will have to figure your new values, purpose, dreams, and hopes for your future as a physician. Let the process unfold and be patient.

There is nothing better than driving a road track and taking the checkered flag. The challenges of passing and being passed, of making the car perform at high speeds, sticking in the turns, shifting gears at the right time are thrilling and so much fun. When I get out of the car, I have a perma-grin on my face. I rejoice in moving beyond my comfort zone and grateful for a fun, fast, and safe session on track. Share that.

Be grateful for your challenges as they make us stronger, wiser, and more confident. These challenges are opportunities to explore something deeper within yourself, something that has always been there waiting for you to discover. Rejoice in your recovery process and find gratitude in all things, good and bad. Good times are great, but the bad times are just a fork in the road on our journey here on Earth. Carry on, road racer!

Jane M. Bridges is a diabetologist. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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