This essay won Medical Student Category second place in our second annual essay contest “Healthy and Happy doctors provide better care: define barriers and solutions to physician wellness.”
America loves superheroes. Good versus evil, sacrifice for the greater good, saving lives, and saving the day. We dream of these heroes and try to embody their characteristics of courage, intelligence, morality, commitment, and honesty. Superheroes put the needs of the world and others before their own desires. Their efforts are noble and far from easy.
We may not see Superman flying overhead, but we do see heroes amongst us. Doctors are heroes. We see it every day at the hospital when a diagnosis is made, the correct medication is given, or a surgery is successful. Hollywood depicts this war on disease in a glamorous light with the doctors and nurses working together to save a life and ultimately save the day. The knowledge of medicine comes with great responsibility and sacrifice. Every decision made impacts a person’s life; there is little room for error. There is also such high demand and need for doctors’ services that physicians can hardly keep up. Doctors work long hours and try to help as many people as they can in what always seems to be too little time.
Many of us chose to practice medicine to help people live healthy lives. We are compassionate and put the needs of others before our own just like superheroes. We feel selfish for taking time to take care of ourselves. Other people need our help, and we should not be hiking, painting, baking, or any other hobby that takes us away from that commitment. By focusing all of our time and energy into medicine we will be the best doctors possible.
However, in reality, if we give up everything that is not medically related, we lose pieces of our identity and slowly spiral into burnout. We come to dread the valuable work we once loved and do not provide the best care for our patients. If we do not take care of our own health in all aspects- mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual- how are we supposed to take care of others?
I came to medical school with the dream to make a difference in people’s lives by becoming a physician. I knew the classwork would be difficult, but neither my classmates nor I truly knew what we were up against until our first anatomy exam. I spent my mornings in a windowless lecture hall learning the human body, and I spent my afternoons and my evenings studying. I would fall asleep each night mentally exhausted from learning the vast amount of material presented that day. I found myself being drawn to buildings and rooms that had windows so that I could experience a small portion of sunshine.
After a month of mostly just studying, I realized that I had completely lost all sense of balance in my life and was not my normal happy self. I dreaded the long hours of studying even though it was in subjects that I had previously loved. Why did I lack the stamina of my classmates who studied long hours? Was I a bad medical student if could not study ten hours a day? How was I supposed to be a great physician and help those in need if I could not take care of my own health?
I was experiencing burnout just like many medical students and physicians do at some point in their lives, so I made a few changes in my life. I started to swim again a couple days a week. I found the water calming and reassuring. The pool was my mental break between class and studying. On days when I swam I was more focused and found more joy in learning the material. I began to study smarter rather than longer. Studying more hours was not going to help me learn the material if I dreaded every hour. I needed breaks if I was going to be able to learn the avalanche of knowledge necessary for medical school. An hour a day to do something I love was a step in the right direction for re-establishing balance in my life.
Last semester I took an elective called Healer’s Art which is a national class that helps both medical students and physicians try to balance the many components of their lives. This class provided a safe discussion environment where we delved into how to preserve the human dimension of healthcare. The course emphasized the importance of taking care of oneself in order to take care of others. Through this class I found camaraderie with my classmates who were struggling just as much as I was in finding the right balance between studying and everything else in our lives. Society pressures us to hide our struggles and to push past them, but there are some aspects of healthcare that are not easily ignored like death, loss, and faith. I believe that creating safe discussion groups in hospitals and medical schools where students and physicians talk about these difficult topics could improve the mental and emotional health of the participants. Healer’s Art reminded all of us to work towards finding that balance, and I believe that discussion groups could do the same for other medical students and doctors.
As physicians, we are both our greatest barrier and greatest advocate for our own health. We have a hero complex that drives us to sacrifice our health and happiness because we feel selfish taking time for ourselves. In reality, by taking those short breaks to pursue activities that we love, we are re-energizing so that we can better care for our patients. Being a physician is difficult; we see all sides of humanity- the good and the bad. If we are not mentally prepared to face hardships that come our way we will not survive in the medical field.
As physicians, we want to be heroes who save the day. But just like in the movies, the world always finds itself in trouble again. If we want to have the strength to save the day over and over again, then we need to take care of ourselves by setting aside time to re-energize. We need to continue to pursue our non-medical hobbies and to build relationships with others. We are physicians, but we are also human, and the world benefits if we take the time to take a break. It is for the greater good.
About the Author
Kara Jolly is a second year medical student at the University of Kentucky. She is from Merrimack, New Hampshire, and has a BS in Biological Sciences from Clemson University. She is currently considering a career in pediatrics or Med-Peds.