Your medical career won’t last forever

“Slowly comes the hour, it’s passing speed how great.”
– Samuel Cowper

Our careers will end someday.

Of course, we know this deep down, but I think we lose sight of it amid our training and the day-to-day grind of our jobs.

But just this past week, I was given a little reminder.

At our Christmas party, we took some time to honor one of our colleagues on his journey to retirement. He had spent 4 — yes, 40 — years at the hospital and now was moving out of the emergency room and into other work.

When I was listening to him speak, I started thinking to myself, “You know, one day I’ll be up there, and this will be my speech.”

How quickly time flies

A blink of an eye ago, and I was in my residency. A blink of an eye later, and I’m here, almost ten years as a staff physician. How did that happen?

My birthday is around the corner, and 40 is getting a little bit closer.

Seriously, how did that happen?

The speech reminded me of how quickly things move beneath our feet when we don’t pay attention. He and his long-time peers told us stories about medical practice in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Incredibly, they shared how much medicine has changed over that time.

They reminisced aloud, and the room filled with their nostalgia. There was laughter, joy, gratitude, and tears.

And of course, surprise at how quickly it all went by.

One day, you might be there too.

When it’s all over

Using a wider lens is an important way to look at the work that you’re doing. Imagine yourself giving your retirement speech one day. What will have mattered to you?

I hope I still have a long way to go before I give that speech. But, if I imagine myself there, it helps me clarify what really matters.

For me, relationships are probably the thing I’ll remember most. I’ll remember the way I interacted with my colleagues and coworkers. The way they helped me through tough cases and the times I helped them through their own.

Your coworkers are with you through the good times and through the bad times. It’s important to cultivate those relationships while you can and to value them.

How you related to the people you worked with will be a huge part of your legacy.

When I think about that, all of those petty disagreements seem to matter much less. Your coworkers are another part of your family. And like family, part of what makes them special is the fact that you’ve stuck together through all of the crazy times you had together. For better or worse.

I’ll think about how lucky I am to actually practice medicine for a living. The way I get to interact with people daily is truly a gift. And it’s one that I often take for granted. People let me into their lives in a way that very few others get access to. I get to take away people’s pain, reassure their worries, and hold space for them on their worst days. It truly is a privilege.

When it’s all over, I can’t image that I’ll think about the overcrowded hallways and the tough shifts that I’ve had — all of the late nights caring for people at their worst.

I’ll be more likely to remember the positives and let those bad times go. In the end, those bad days won’t matter anyway. How can I learn to do more of that now?

What if it was your last day?

Growing up, I was a huge fan of the television show, ER. Perhaps the most memorable scene in that entire series is when the character Dr. Greene works his last shift in the ER, knowing that he is slowly dying of a brain tumor. I know, right?

It’s incredibly moving the way he looks around at everyone. Keeping his secret to himself and knowing that he’ll never be back. Think about that. Gets me choked up every time. Can you imagine that it was you?

Especially now, as an actual ER physician, I can really think about what that might be like. What if it was my last day in the ER?

What if it was your last day working? How would you look around the department and relate to your colleagues? How would you walk around? Would you spend a little extra time getting upset at others or arguing about things that won’t matter tomorrow? I doubt it.

Or would you spend a little bit of extra time just being where you are? Trying to soak up what it feels like one last time.

In medicine, we are constantly reminded that we never know when your last days will come. I hope that we all have long and rewarding careers, but for some, it’s not guaranteed.

In the end

Remember that this work isn’t always going to be there. It will end one day.

Thinking about that once in a while might help you appreciate all the good things in your days and all of the people that help you do your jobs.

It might not seem like it now, but when it’s your turn to give your retirement speech, I hope you will also look back at your career with a sense of gratitude. You are lucky to be here, and you are supported in what you are doing. Don’t forget it.

It doesn’t last forever.

Navpreet Sahsi is an emergency physician who blogs at Physician, Heal Thyself.

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