This essay won Resident Category third place in our second annual essay contest “Healthy and Happy doctors provide better care: define barriers and solutions to physician wellness.”
“The light in me salutes and honors the light within you.” My favorite yoga class always ends this way. There’s just something about having just spent the last 75 minutes stretching, contorting, flexing and most importantly breathing in a humidified 104 F room that makes that inner light shine a little brighter and is just what this doctor ordered for herself: a prescription for a well woman empowered to be a great physician.
When I first made the bold decision to switch paths in life to the one that would lead me to medicine, I knew that a large part of my practice would involve helping others. At its bare minimum being a doc is a being a problem solver…other people’s problems. However, to be effective one has to be right within oneself.
As physicians we are also purveyors of wellness. Those who are unwell come to us to get better whether that involves antibiotic treatment for a terrible cellulitis or mood stabilization for a lifetime plagued by bipolar disorder. We take our years of dedicated study, coupled with hours of on the job training, to make things right for someone we helped deliver into this world to a complete stranger we just met in the Emergency Room. In a profession that at its essence is about putting healthy energy out to others to heal, doctors must pay special mind to replenish themselves. The proverbial well “that has run dry” cannot quench anyone’s thirst.
I was rather surprised that little effort was made during medical school to ensure that we were taking proper care of ourselves. I thought it a great irony: here we are making a career based on the principles of and purporting wellness but were living lives that were anything but “well.” Night fueled by super caffeinated beverages, days run on sugar, and post-exam nights that could simply be described as bacchanalian were the norm. Some effort was made to teach us self-care. There was a weekly meeting that focused on mindfulness, which proved to be completely invaluable during those stressful exams. These sessions were not well attended because not enough emphasis has ever been placed on practitioner well-being. Regrettably too much focus was placed on scores and posters.
Taking time to refuel is essential to a successful career. We sometimes need to be reminded, in some cases taught, that self-care must be part of our daily practice because without it we are simply not the best, and we owe it to those who’ve entrusted us with their lives to be the best for them. Perhaps, because I have chosen the specific fields of psychiatry coupled with pediatrics, I have always been more aware of what can go so easily wrong when stress takes over our minds and then our bodies. I have seen first-hand adults lose the ability to speak because the brain was on overload and needed a break. Children who’ve become physically sick because they won’t stop…can’t stop. Theoretically, as very well educated adults, this should come naturally to us, but as most of us are over-achievers, classic type A, we rarely want to take the time to pause and check-in with ourselves.
Having just started my intern year, I keep hearing tales of the dreaded “intern 30” similar to that awful “freshman 15.” However, the later was to supposedly come from excessive beer intake and high sodium containing dorm food. I wondered how this could be. What are we doing to ourselves? How can we possibly expect ourselves to work 80 weeks without proper fuel…physically and emotionally? And therein lies the problem. Without sounding like I am waiting for doomsday to arrive, why spend years, thousands of dollars, missed weddings and birthdays to have a degree and then embark on a career that will so easily fall to pieces if we are not constantly refilling the foundation?
Step one to a solution is awareness. I hear stories of my predecessors where their work was so consuming that hours, days, weeks, and years blended into one. We are fortunate that we are training in a time where there are limitations. Because of the boundaries that were created for us, we are able to have “lives.” It is imperative that we remember this. We do have moments that can best be utilized not in reading another journal article, but in mediation, taking a walk, having a telephone conversation with a loved one…whatever it takes to make us feel whole again.
Many of us feel the need to present an infallible front; we’re doctors after all. Ah, yes, but we are human too. Like Shylock, Shakespeare’s great villain cries, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Indeed, we do. If our lights have burned out, how can we be the sparks some of our patients so desperately require? I ask that you remember to take time for yourself to see that you are physically and mentally well so that you may continue to provide the best care for both you and your patients.
The light in me salutes and honors the lights in all of you, my fellow physicians.
About the Author
Dr. Rebecca Ba’Gah is originally from Los Angeles, CA where she attended UCLA’s school of Theater, Film and Television and she spent many years in show business. She eventually found true fulfillment in medicine. She recently moved to Lexington for residency at UK in Pediatrics, Psychiatry, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She hopes to one day be a part of Médecins Sans Frontières and continue to change the public perception of mental illness.