Are physicians martyrs or models?


This concept comes up in Glennon Doyle’s new #1 best-selling book, Untamed. In this memoir, she looks at her unhappy marriage through the eyes of her daughter. She has been staying in the marriage for her children, believing that getting a divorce would be bad for her kids. As she is combing her daughter’s hair, she has an epiphany: I am staying in this marriage for my little girl. But would I want this marriage for my little girl? Am I a martyr or a model?

This got me thinking about all the physicians I know who are staying in unhappy jobs to make money to provide a good life for themselves and their families.

Like many others, I went into medicine because I wanted to help others. I had a deep desire to positively impact peoples’ lives, was fascinated by the human body, and was passionate about learning. I also come from a family of doctors. My father was a radiologist. My stepfather was a cardiologist. All of my parents’ friends were doctors. Growing up around doctors in all specialties, I observed them living deeply rewarding lives. Yes, they worked hard. Sometimes they couldn’t make it to the Christmas party. When my stepdad was on call, the phone rang at all hours of the night, and my mom slept in the guestroom. It wasn’t easy. But there were visible signs that a career in medicine was stable, personally fulfilling, and highly valued by society. When I decided to pursue a medical career, these family members and friends were excited for me and encouraging.

I went into medicine with my eyes wide open, and yet, I was not prepared for the emotional toll that the career would take on me. The first year of medical school, I got a B- on my first biochemistry exam. I had always been a free-spirited, well-rounded, affable, engaged, dynamic, and endlessly curious person who had excelled in school. I had majored in psychology, worked hard and played hard in college, but was accustomed to getting As. Getting that B- sent me into a shame storm. I am bad. I do not belong in this environment. I am not worthy of being here.

I compensated by assuming the mantra: Please. Perform. Perfect. Those who knew me in medical school will remember me sitting in the front row in lecture halls, raising my hand frequently to make sure I understood exactly what was being said so that I could memorize it and be rewarded on the exam. I studied constantly. Instead of meeting friends out at bars on the weekends, I went to my parents’ house and studied in the basement. I knew the class saw me as a “gunner,” but it didn’t matter. I didn’t cook, clean, or exercise. My mom would go to the grocery store to stock my refrigerator, and dinner was cereal eaten straight from the box. When my boyfriend (now husband) moved from Connecticut to live with me, we had many fights about my general absence and lack of helping out around the apartment. I passed on the advice from upperclassmen to him: Don’t worry. This is temporary. It will get better. You’ll see.

Fast-forward through radiology residency, fellowship, and 16 years in private practice, it didn’t get better. The patterns I established early on in my medical career became a lifestyle. I had decided to work part-time and didn’t become a partner in my group because I wanted to have a better work-life balance with my three kids and spouse. But my work culture was toxic and weighed heavily on me, whether I was at work or at home. I was short-tempered, perpetually exhausted, always living inside my own head, full of self-doubt. My husband tolerated it because he had slowly been brainwashed right along with me: This is just the way adult life is.

It wasn’t until my kids started asking questions that I really started examining myself: Mom, why are you always tired? Always in a bad mood? Why don’t you quit that job? Suddenly, my sizeable paycheck and material wealth didn’t matter. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t like the person I had become. I didn’t respect myself for preaching values of integrity, authenticity, and kindness but not practicing them. I had become a martyr, a person who undergoes severe or constant suffering. I justified my self-sacrifice as noble. But it was bullshit.

I don’t want to be a martyr for my family or society at large. I want to be a model. I want to embody what a good life looks like. I want to die with no regrets. When I thought about my babies, all grown up in the future, and envisioned them living the life I was living, it made my heart break.

I left that job three years ago. Was it scary? Hell yes. It was also the best decision I have ever made. The crazy thing is that, as soon as I did, an amazing world of opportunities opened up for me; meaningful ways I could be the healer I set out to be early in my career. I am no longer a victim or a martyr. I have autonomy. I can look at myself in the mirror and like who I see. I sleep soundly at night. When I hear Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” on the radio, I no longer feel sad when I think of my children growing up to be just like me.

I know the middle of a pandemic, when doctors are needed more than ever, may seem like an insensitive time to think about yourself and your own needs. But is it?

Tracey O’Connell is a radiologist and physician coach. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Tracey O’Connell, M.D.

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