This is a story of my reclamation. As a child, I had a vivid image of myself as a physician wearing the smartly pressed long white coat and holding a brilliantly shining stethoscope as I listened intently to the hearts of my patients. At just eight years old, I would ravenously devour the high gloss, vividly colored pages of the human anatomy encyclopedias my mother gave me. It was clear that my interest was peaked when I would repeatedly request injections on each visit to the pediatrician and ask an abundance of questions. After many years of sacrifices by my mother and myself, this childhood dream was realized.
My mother’s first sacrifice was to take her only child to live in a country other than her own. The thought of how difficult it must’ve been for my 34-year-old mother to leave behind all that she had known to emigrate to the United States with a mere $40 in her purse and two suitcases of belongings to pursue the dream of her eight-year-old child, gives me a deep pang of guilt. The next large sacrifice was mine — giving up the decade known as my 20s to study the craft that heals rather than explore the world. The sacrifices that have been made make this reclamation story even more powerful. But how could it be that living a realized childhood dream could not bring joy? Or is it that the joy slipped away without me knowing it?
When we decide to go into medicine, our intentions are always for good. Medicine is predominantly pursued by those who wish to give the deepest parts of themselves to others. In fact, I did miss the parties and world traveling that fellow mates pursued in their twenties, as I happily put my head down and did the things necessary to realize the dream that was born in my eight-year-old mind. So you can imagine that it was to my great surprise that I found myself in a position where reclamation became necessary. I had to reclaim the feelings of happiness, contentment and resolve that danced in the heart of an eight-year-old child — the feelings that propelled me as a young woman to give up the exploration and frivolity of my 20s in order to learn the skills necessary to practice my dream.
The altruist in me was having a difficult time reconciling with the slow creep of my loss of passion to serve and succor. How did this happen? Like every other insidious process that infiltrates and consumes, my lost love occurred over time and was an accumulation of numerous events. When you look at yourself in the mirror every day, it is very difficult to see the metamorphosis occurring, but when I looked back, I realized the change had been glaring at me for years. This is not something that I just woke up to one day; instead, it has crept upon me like a clandestine thief in the night. It was hard to see how the toll of being injured, not exercising, not finding passion outside of medicine, and trying to fill my cup with medicine alone had affected me. My answer was to work more, which only worsened my depressed state and intensified the effects of burnout for me. The next sacrifice was my family — I became distant and emotionally unable to accept change.
Every person who has been in the abyss and risen out of it has a different narrative. The operative part of the narrative is the survival and overcoming. The path to recovery and renewal does not have to be riddled with struggle. I am very honored to now be part of a group of doctors who value their own wellness and have put in place wellness coaches, of which I am one, to help prevent burnout. Our cloth in medicine is such that breeds the attitude of resilience while we silently suffer inside, but this should not be the case. If you are a physician, resident, or medical student (or maybe you know and love one), I implore you to look critically at your heart and truly account for where you stand in terms of burnout. How do you know if you are burned out? Do you feel fatigued, listless? Do you have anxiety when you think about going to work? Are you easily irritated or quick to anger? Have you lost your appetite? Have you been experiencing insomnia? We, as healers, serve so many, but we have to make sure that we take care of ourselves.
There is a phenomenon that tends to exclude the younger members of the house of medicine. We often attribute burnout to be a condition that is exclusive to practicing physicians who are well into their careers. This is a fallacy. The truth is you can experience the symptoms of burnout at any point in your study and training. Practicing medicine, serving patients, realizing a dream, and giving ourselves to our patients is joyous, but there are so many things that can steal and dampen that joy. The suffocation is insidious to be sure. Forewarned is forearmed.
Even when your dream and your vision have been an integral portion of your life’s fabric like it was for me, the possibility of stumbling and even falling is real. It behooves us to realize that we are more resilient than we think, stronger than we know, and truly capable of amazing things. However, we all are human at the end of each day. In order to truly unleash your greatness, we have to be mindful of the external forces and often internal turmoil that can eat away slowly at our joy. If you are in the process of this amazing journey that is the practice of medicine, please be mindful of your wellness. Your path may be very different from mine. You may find solace in journaling, sports, time with family or meditation. The key is to recognize that if your cup is not full, there is absolutely no way you can give to or serve others. It may be as simple as a reading about personal development and fortification. It may be that you find the transfer of your thoughts to paper is your catharsis. Think about how you plan to practice your self-care. Give yourself 30 minutes every day just for this purpose. If you have to break this up into to 15-minute segments then so be it. There are 24 hours in everyone’s day, but I implore you to reclaim your 2%.
Take your calendar out right now and pencil in your time for self-care this week. Make an appointment with yourself for yourself. Recognize if you are encroaching the abyss that is the definition of burned out. If you are, you have a way out, you have lifelines, and you have many hands reaching down to grab yours and pull you out. Burnout is real. Burnout is indiscriminate. Burnout is sneaky. But, burnout can be defeated.
Dr. Charmaine Gregory is a full-time nocturnist Emergency physician who has survived burnout by focusing on fitness and wellness. Her penchant for paying it forward has led to opportunities for virtual fitness coaching, peer coaching, group fitness coaching and literary pursuits.
This post has been edited for length and clarity from its original appearance in The Chronicles of Women In White Coats.