It’s odd the places you find concepts that bring your life and goals into focus. I never thought the founder of Sam Adams —Jim Koch—a guy whose name I didn’t even know, would say something that changed my perception of what’s at stake in choosing a career path (full disclosure: I am biased against Sam Adams because I don’t like their beer much, and if there’s one thing I have impeccable taste in, it’s beer). I came across the story as told by Jim Koch in the podcast, How I Built This with Guy Raz.
Jim tells the story of how he finished business and law school and got a great job at a firm called Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The pay was high and he flew first class to important meetings with important people, but he came to the realization that he did not want to do the job the rest of his life, and if he didn’t want to do it the rest of his life, then why do it tomorrow? So he quit that job and decided to…brew beer?!
His reason for leaving that great job is fascinating, he says:
I left it because staying there was very risky. Leaving it was not risky. And it’s the difference in life between things that are scary and things that are dangerous. And there are plenty of things that are scary but aren’t dangerous, and there are things that are dangerous, but not scary. And those are the things that get you.
He goes on to give an analogy in climbing. Rappelling down a rock wall is scary because you are jumping down a huge cliff, but it’s not dangerous because you are held by strong ropes and a harness. On the other hand, walking down the side of a mountain on a sunny day with blue skies around you is dangerous, but not scary. It’s prime weather for an avalanche that could easily kill you, but the beauty of the day lulls you into a sense of security. He elucidates further about his great job:
Staying at BCG, was dangerous but not scary, and the danger there, the risk of it, was continuing to do something that didn’t make me happy, and getting to, you know, 65 and looking back and going, “Oh my God, I wasted my life.” That is risk. That is danger.
As I look for a job after residency, I think a lot about this idea, that there are things that are perilous, but do not raise alarm. The job choice all residents face out of residency is private vs academic. I won’t go into the differences, as I’m sure most of you reading this know, but I’ve always leaned academic.
I have been fortunate to train at a great neurosurgery program with wonderful mentors who have excelled in academia and are master surgeons. The thing about mentors is they make you want to follow in their footsteps, to do what they did because they are inspiring people. I like the academic side of medicine. But it’s a regimented path that requires discipline, dedication, and persistence to be successful. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for other pursuits.
I don’t have any illusions that if I decided to pursue academic neurosurgery I would eventually be the chair of a renowned department or the president of one of the neurosurgical societies. Heck, right now, I’ve applied to more than a couple of academic positions and I can’t even get an interview. But academic neurosurgery is a clear path to pursue with well-defined goals and milestones. It doesn’t seem scary at all to me.
Pursuing a career in global health, on the other hand, seems quite the opposite. I worry about how Joy and I will raise our daughters in a different country (how will they be educated? what risks will they be exposed to?), how will our finances work out (where will our funding come from? our retirement?), what if we fail (what will job prospects look like then?), and many, many other things from dying from some strange virus to not having access to good beer (it’s the little things after all).
But when I sit in the quiet moments, late at night when I am honest with myself, it’s taking the defined path, the one that doesn’t FEEL risky, that I am terrified of looking back on and saying “Oh my God, I wasted my life.”
Trying to think about my life from the perspective of my 65 year old self is an insightful exercise. I imagine myself at the end of a career at a major academic neurosurgery program, I’ve mentored a lot of young surgeons, done interesting cases, I spend my day mostly doing the surgeries I like, and writing the papers I want to write, etc. When I think about that, I still find this nagging part of me that feels, well, unfulfilled. I don’t mean to disparage people who do this; I have benefitted immensely from people who found this was the right path for them. I also acknowledge that there are inspiring people in academics who have successfully pursued global neurosurgery projects (Dr. Haglund at Duke comes first to mind), but something in me just seems to say it’s not the right path for me. I also worry I could be diverted or distracted or not be able to devote enough time to my main goal.
When I think about dedicating my career to trying to improve neurosurgical care and education, as well as learning how people are already providing this care around the globe in resource-strapped settings, I get excited with the kind of feeling you get when you are clicking up the first hill of a roll-a-coaster held down by a harness. It feels scary, but people are there doing it with you and others have done it before you. When my 65-year-old-self thinks about looking back on that life, he has a deep satisfaction and peace.
I can’t say completely why dedicating a career to improving care in resource-limited settings has become my version of a life well-lived. I think it’s partly because I was raised in a Christian home, and the aspect of that upbringing that rang truest to me was that a life well-lived is one in which you gave up some comfort of your own to provide comfort for others less fortunate than you. That principle has stuck with me when a lot of other parts have faded. And I’ve come to realize I’m not really choosing a career between private practice and academics; I’m choosing between the defined and undefined, the well-trodden path versus my own unique one.
When it comes down to it, the things I worry about in working in global health are mainly logistical, not dangerous. Lots of missionaries have raised and educated kids across the globe. There are ways around the financial concerns. Strange viruses could pop up anywhere. And I can always home-brew. But the chance to pursue a career that you feel lines up with a truth you intrinsically and inexplicably hold regarding what gives your life purpose and meaning, you only have one lifetime to make that happen. The more I think about that, passing on it, or pursuing it only half-way, is the real danger.
We are overdue for a “state-of-the-union” post. Part of the reason is because I started this blog in a big state-of-transition; I was at the end of residency and then at the end of pregnancy, so any post about where we are would have been instantly obsolete.
I can do a brief recap of the past 6 months or so (a more full audio version of a lot of this is in ourfirst podcast episode). I had just decided to take a research position here in Rochester so that I could take maternity leave and care for the girls during Josh’s chief year (sans au pair), and Josh and I were starting to interview for real jobs. This job-hunt prompted the serious discussions about how we still wanted to do global surgery, and so I started researching the topic obsessively, and getting overwhelmed by all the information and options regarding huge, life-altering decisions. So I started the website and blog, wrote a few posts, graduated, started the podcast, and had a baby.
As we will emphasize time and again, we started this project because we needed a way to organize the information we were finding and because we wanted to tell the stories of inspiring humanitarian health providers. We are not the stars of this show; we are the naive amateurs trying to join the bigger leagues.
Despite that awareness about ourselves and vision for Indie Docs, I had a conversation last night with Josh that made me a little sad. He expressed regret for not “doing more” in residency. Back in 2005, his motivation for taking his very first college-level science class (Basic Chem 101) was to become a doctor and do global health work (after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains). That goal wove it’s way into countless conversations regarding specialty choice and long-term plans beyond residency. Josh spent a month in Uganda as a 4th year elective in med school (while I was on another away-rotation) with the Cure hospital, and he had a fantastic experience. Mayo has generous funding for short humanitarian surgery electives but no formal program for long engagements during residency; I enjoyed two such trips, one to Ukraine and another to to Guatemala, but Josh hasn’t travelled for a medical trip since Uganda.
My response to Josh was to list all the reasons for us not traveling more. In 2012 we became a two-resident household, both in surgical specialties, and I was proud of us for just keeping it together through training and the birth of our first child. We needed lots of help, from our au pair and day care and one another, and I honestly didn’t feel like galavanting around the globe was a huge priority. I didn’t have any doubts about humanitarian work as a long-term goal that felt like a road-test was needed. Honestly, before I became a chief resident I wasn’t super useful on medical trips, which is a bad feeling after taking all the effort to go. This is the same sentiment I had back in college and I was teaching math and English in Nairobi when I decided to become a doctor; I wanted to do something concrete and unequivocally helpful (education IS definitely important, but there were plenty of local educators who needed the work, and it didn’t quite feel like my purpose in life). In another sense, I felt like Josh and I took somewhat of a mental break from the subject of global surgery, and if we were really meant to do it I thought we would return to that goal. And we did. So in short, I supposed I felt like we were biding our time, doing the necessary hard work of getting excellent training, and enjoying some aspects of life in the meantime (namely starting our family).
Despite these points, I don’t want to dismiss Josh’s feelings. It is entirely possible that the above paragraph is nothing but a pile of excuses and we absolutely should have done more. We could have gone for MPH degrees during training, adopted a passion project overseas, made a serious effort to travel together, been more generous with our money, volunteered more here in town, etc. Like Dr. Dupont discussed in his podcast episode, we could have foregone buying a house, gotten more serious about slashing our debts, and maybe set ourselves up to travel sooner. I will absolutely admit there is more that we could have done.
So why didn’t we? Like I alluded to earlier, being so busy and stretched so thin probably had a lot to do with it. There is a buzzy word that I think applies here: that of the “scarcity mindset.” We never had enough time to spend together. Our money was relatively tight and I’m a big saver; it’s hard for me to spend money on travel. With the birth of our first daughter, I was worried about having enough in the budget to cover 80 hours per week of childcare (we definitely dipped into our savings those two years). Additionally, I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to pay much attention to this idea.
In a way, Josh’s regrets represent the real and present danger we are in professionally. If we slacked off and made excuses during residency, how much more likely will those mistakes be as we acquire more responsibility. Josh often refers to a statement by Sam Adams founder Jim Koch that some things are scary but not dangerous and others are dangerous but not scary (paraphrasing, he will have a full-post about this up soon); I think this situation falls under that latter category. It doesn’t feel scary to grind out an over-loaded daily life, but we might look around a decade later and realize we haven’t accomplished our goals and haven’t found our greater purpose (or get majorly burned out).
So whatever the reasons, legitimate or not, that we’ve had for inaction in the past, the time is here for transformation. We are beginning to plan for our first humanitarian trip together as a family; I will write about our destination, financial strategy, and timing in upcoming posts. I was recently challenged by Episode 1 of the So Money Podcast (hosted by Farnoosh Torabi) with Tony Robbins, in which he says that being generous helps us to avoid the scarcity mindset by convincing our subconscious that we have enough to give, and if we don’t give when we have a little money, we certainly won’t give when we have a lot of money (paraphrasing again). So we will also establish some causes to support on a regular basis rather than just the helter-skelter giving we’ve been doing until this point. And of course, we will continue to make a big effort to post useful content on this website and tell the stories of inspiring humanitarians making the difference with their hard work.
One thing I must address briefly at this point is the reason that we won’t be moving to a medical mission immediately out of training. I will do a complete post on this topic soon, but suffice it to say that it doesn’t make sense from a financial or professional standpoint. We have debts, namely student loans, and very little savings. At the same time, we have the potential to make what is frankly a huge income between the two of us, and I feel like there’s no way I could justify asking for charitable donations when we could essentially be self-funded in a few short years. We’ve determined that achieving financial independence is really the only pathway that makes a lot of sense for us. And, although we both were raised in Christian homes and are heavily influenced by many Christian ideals, we wouldn’t meet the standards to qualify for the same funding programs as our evangelical friends. Additionally, Josh needs to take neurosurgery boards in a couple of years, and we would both like to get some good experience as full-fledged surgeons before jumping out on our own in a low-resource setting.
The project of creating Indie Docs has jolted us with motivation, and accountability, to push ourselves to learn more and do more. Establishing our plan of action with clear intentions and wisdom is requiring intense effort, but one that I hope will pay off not only for us, but also for other physicians struggling to find the best way to make this life-goal a sustainable reality.
Trigger warning: This post contains references to burnout, depression, and a brief and non-specific account of my friend’s suicide.
I was reluctant to write this post, but I can’t get past it to write others until this one is out there. I’ve been mentally ruminating on what I should say for weeks. I’m convinced this topic, although widely discussed and written about by physicians, is still in the stage where sharing our personal experiences might be what helps someone else fend off their own struggle with burnout and depression, as there are few institutionalized solutions or strategies for dealing with it. And perhaps for myself, sharing without shame is a form of therapy.
2010, residency interview trail. In my smart gray suit and burgundy blouse, I focused on maintaining eye contact and a slight smile as I introduced myself to my interviewer, a heavy-set man with a bushy mustache and friendly face, somewhere in the Southeast. First question, “So I’ve looked through your CV, and I have to ask you…what are you doing here? You and I both know you’re not going to rank this program.” Well, actually I’m couples matching with a neurosurgery candidate, so I’ll be ranking all programs and your program has a good cardiac surgery department and research capabilities, so…awkward. Ok next question. “You are like the medical version of a gym-rat. You like never leave the hospital. Don’t you know you’re going to burn out?”
I was adamant that I was doing what I liked. Of course I was not going to burn out, thank you very much.
2014, 3rd year of general surgery training. I was edging ever closer to entering the integrated cardiac surgery track I had committed to during my 4th-year med school away-rotation. The advice from my wonderfully supportive mentor, Dr. S, back home echoed in my mind, “If you go up there to do this, you have to follow through. Don’t punk out. Don’t be one of those women who gets washed out.” The problem was, I was conflicted about cardiac vs. trauma in med school, and I remained so those first few years in residency. I reasoned that in the worst-case scenario, I could just do the integrated cardiac training and then be a trauma surgeon; it’s just an extra year of training, that’s doable, right? In any case, I was not going to quit.
I have had a few other instances in life of not knowing when to quit. In the first grade, my teacher gave explicit and strict instructions to not interrupt her lesson for any reason; I’m pretty sure she gave the example of not even for the bathroom. And then I had to go really bad. But I said nothing, and her lesson seemed like it yawned toward eternity, and of course, I ended up sitting in a HUGE puddle of urine as my neighbor silently laughed his head off. I was quite confused when my mother and my teacher both admonished me to simply raise my hand and ask to leave next time I had to go that bad.
To get a discount on my prom dress, I posed as a “human mannequin” in the mall. I could go hours without moving a muscle. Teenage boys would try to get me to move or smile, and I was so determined that I would have tears rolling down my face from dry eyes before I gave in. I was also undefeated in staring contests; I still do not know my upper limit of standing still.
3rd year of med school, Dr. S informed me that there were no residents on his service that week, so if I showed up I could scrub all day every day and be 1st assistant. Needless to say I was PUMPED. By the end of the week, I was taking 600 mg of ibuprofen before every case to deal with the neck pain, but having a blast. We had a case that was going great, and so true to routine he ordered for the room to be warmed up in preparation to come off pump, but then we weren’t actually able to come off pump for quite a while. The surgeon ran through various maneuvers and waited patiently for the right constellation of labs and monitor feedback. Minutes stretched into hours, and I could feel beads of perspiration dripping down my shirt and legs. The room was over 80 degrees. I started to feel faint, and so I held a valsalva maneuver to get my blood pressure up; that helped. I tightened my leg muscles, shifted back and forth, flexed my calves, and kept myself from passing out at the table. This went on for another couple of hours. If I relaxed, I got light-headed and the room would start going dark, so I’d tighten everything back up. Finally, at a point where I was starting to hear that high-pitched screech that comes right before you really pass out, the surgeon told me to go scrub out and take a little break, since it was obvious it would be another 30 minutes. I went to the locker room, collapsed on a bench and ripped off my dripping wet scrubs. I looked down at my legs and saw that they were covered in petechia up to my thighs. I put on fresh scrubs, guzzled a glass of water, and went back in to finish the case.
There are other examples, but I’ll wrap up this digression by saying that I might be one of those few people that Angela Duckworth references in Grit who really doesn’t know when to quit.
So back to 3rd year, I was flying high after coming off of one of the hardest but most enjoyable rotations in residency, where I was the senior resident with one of our most respected and demanding surgeons in the program. I had also just returned from my trip to Ukraine with Novick Cardiac Alliance, where I learned how much potential there is for advanced-level surgery care in lower-resource settings.
Having wanted a career exactly like Dr. Bill Novick’s since med school (He founded cardiac programs in low-resource countries all over the world), I should have been sure of my direction, but small doubts were persistent as to whether cardiac was the right field for me. I was more interested in the bombings on the Ukrainian border a short drive away from our site than in our pediatric cardiac cases. I couldn’t deny that I was a little bored with cardiac, which was a very troubling concept, but one that I shoved aside. I couldn’t quit.
I felt great going into my thoracic surgery rotation, which was a big test for whether the integrated cardio-thoracic spot would officially be mine. Only a couple of days into the rotation, I felt myself faltering. After a couple of weeks, I was drowning. Nothing I did was right, nothing I said was right, I was never where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there, and I felt like my brain was 10 steps behind me at all times. I confided in trusted mentors that I didn’t know why I was failing so miserably. I didn’t get it and I was frustrated and terrified of failure.
One of the fellows, T, knew Dr. S from back home. He gave me compliments every day, telling me how highly Dr. S thought of me and all the nice things he would still tell people about me. T was a meticulous clinician, and shared with me his routine for rounding, which was truly exceptional. I tried to emulate him. He was probably the nicest person I’ve ever met, especially within the hospital, and his encouragement kept me going.
At our program, we have chief conferences for every rotation, where we go to the fancy auditorium, get onstage in our suits, present our cases from the rotation, and field questions from the staff. It’s a nerve-wracking event for all the senior residents, and we spend hours and hours preparing. I met with multiple staff to go over my case list. I studied for 15 hours one Saturday that I wasn’t working because I needed to make up for my poor performance on the rotation. I kept trying to meet with one particular staff member who would be leading the questioning for my conference, and who always met with residents regarding the conference in the past. She rescheduled with me no less than 10 times, even rescheduling a phone-call with me, and always at the last minute. Finally, the day of the conference she sat down with me, looked at my list, said it looked good with a finality in her voice that did not invite further discussion. I left that meeting knowing that I was about to get massacred; it was just obvious. Sure enough, despite my preparation, I fielded a rapid-fire of questions on controversial topics, and my brain was stuck in red-alarm mode. I could see the paper sitting in my bag discussing how there was no professional consensus on a certain topic, but my mouth just couldn’t say the words that demonstrated what I knew.
The next morning, my typically formal, reserved and always gentle attending greeted me with the words, “I was so PISSED last night! That was BEYOND inappropriate.” I had cried my eyes out after the conference, but I felt responsible for it all. I should have been able to do better. I should have done lots of things better. I took the blame despite more admonishing that it wasn’t fair to me. What’s fair got to do with it?
The remainder of that year was a downward spiral mentally. I had never outright failed professionally before. I continued to force myself to fight for something I didn’t really want. I relived all the moments of shame and humiliation over and over again, all day every day. I became irritable and would pick fights with my husband. During a car ride, I even heard myself say, “I am yelling at you because you’re the only person I can yell at that will listen.” Things had gotten very dark for me.
I was at my workstation getting vital signs one morning when I got a page. Our friend T was missing; he hadn’t shown up for work. So uncharacteristic and worrisome. I paged my other friend on a rotation with T to find out what was going on. I got another page, returned it, was told to sit down. Two days after supper club and movie night where we had a great time, laughed and joked, where I consciously perceived that his presence was like a port in the storm for me, T took his own life. I wailed in the workroom, felt sick, then felt numb. I rounded. Cried, felt numb. Scrubbed into my first case, cried at the sink, went numb. Did the case. My attending asked what was up. I told him, cried, went numb again. Did another case, actually thankful for the distraction. My group of friends stayed in close contact all that week, tried to get together as much as possible. We were all scared, although we could say exactly why or what we thought would happen to us at this point. I couldn’t understand how such a kind and gentle person could…it’s still too painful to write.
I slipped further into a dark, heavy, and bleak state. I functioned at work, had rebounded to some level of good performance, but every day I felt like I couldn’t keep up with all the tasks on my to-do list. My mind frantically begged for a pause button. Weekends off weren’t enough to recharge; vacation time didn’t help either. Every day started with a panic over how much needed to get done and seemed to end almost instantly, with nothing but shame on my part for not getting to this or that. My life felt like it was careening forward at breakneck speed, and I couldn’t slow it down, keep up, or catch up.
I had no emotional reserve. I received feedback that I seemed miserable from my intern, but I felt like I was doing all I could to simply function at work. My marriage suffered.
Then, my elderly, cancer-ridden, sweet greyhound, Pfeiffer, died. We knew it was coming for months. But this tipped me over from what was probably severe burnout to full-blown depression.
One of my trauma mentors, Dr. M., had talked to me a few times over the years about a particularly hard rotation he had in residency, and he described his emotional state during that time as “suicidal-enough.” He didn’t have a plan, but said if his car happened to run off the road or something like that, he wouldn’t have been disappointed. That’s also how I started feeling. But I also became convinced that my husband would be better off without me, my friends were only friends because they felt sorry for me and were nice people, and although my parents loved me they would actually be better off without me too. I had intrusive thoughts about my car running off the road every time I drove. I thought, maybe with some measure of hope (if that’s what we can call it), that perhaps I would develop a terminal illness.
I also felt trapped. My fate as a cardiac surgeon was still unclear, or at least for the integrated spot. I wasn’t ready to quit because I didn’t want to be a quitter. I agreed to go back to thoracic for another audition rotation. I did fine but not stellar. Whatever, I didn’t care.
I recognized my symptoms of depression and was acutely aware of the danger I was in, especially after my friend, who was much kinder and gentler than me, had recently succumbed to it’s pain. I took an online questionnaire that pegged me as “severely depressed,” and instructed me to seek medical attention. I shared this information with my mother and told her I needed advice but I didn’t want to go to the doctor. Could we just talk it through? I thought her wisdom and love could pull me out of it. I didn’t want “depression” in my medical record, and I didn’t want to tick that box on professional forms in the future.
I researched strategies to combat depression. I exercised regularly, tried to get outside on every sunny day, eat healthy, connect with friends, talk about it with my mom, Josh, and my best girl-friend.
I longed for some canine companionship and so decided to volunteer to walk dogs with the local greyhound rescue group. I met up with them and instantly connected with a big yellow staghound. I picked him up on the first 50-degree Saturday of the year, and we went to a hiking trail.
There was still a nice covering of snow on the ground that sparkled in the warm sunshine. It was a glorious day. I smiled and my face literally hurt because I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing as we clumsily jogged up and down the rutted out, snowy trails.
We stopped at a bridge and just sat together, and the dog literally hugged me, draping his giant neck over my head and just resting there long enough for me to snap a selfie.
Ramble had a gift for making everyone feel important. Indeed, he convinced everyone that they were important with his confident affection. I thought about many things sitting on that bridge, including what my options were in life. I could do so many things still… I could learn a foreign language, write creatively, read some books, adopt this dog! I could be a trauma surgeon if I wanted. Suddenly, there were a dozen sunny paths before me instead of the claustrophobic walls of a dark dungeon.
Of course I got the dog, and named him Ramble. I created the life-motto of, “If I’m too busy for a dog, I’m too busy.” I decided I would never cross that line again; it was too dangerous. I made room for all the things mentioned above. I apologized to my husband and started doing fun things with him, like seeing as many indie-rock shows as humanly possible. It was a blast.
I sat through the meeting where I was told I did not get the integrated cardiac spot. One loud thought started flashing across my brain…I’m going to start a family! So we did. And I went all-in on trauma/critical care, and that felt so, so good. Trauma is just more fun, and I loved every day of my fellowship year. And thus, What-is-More-Fun finally became a guiding light.
What actually changed for me that day with Ramble? Only one thing: Perspective. All of those possibilities in life were always there, but I couldn’t see any of them. I went from trapped to in-charge. It was a sudden revolution, but one that I’ll never forget.
I made some mistakes on this journey. I got lucky that I made it through; but not seeking medical help was a huge risk that is not worth taking. I know of residents with the most stellar reputations, who have won the biggest campus-wide leadership and teaching awards possible, who are open about being on anti-depressants. Anyone with symptoms of depression should seek professional help. One other excuse that I made was that my symptoms hadn’t been going on that long, so I couldn’t really be depressed, it was all situational, blah blah blah. Again, I urge anyone who recognizes these symptoms in themselves or a friend or relative, seek and encourage others to seek professional help. It’s just too important, you are too important, to settle for less.
I hope that I am able to spot the symptoms of burnout among my future residents. With my performance level dropping, seeming tired and overwhelmed by the schedule, even after asking for help and understanding from my staff, the signs were fairly apparent. Yet, I had only one single attending ask me during the course of the year whether I might be depressed after I confided that I felt overwhelmed with my to-do list every day (and at that point I summarily denied it). It seems that this is a common experience during 3rd year of general surgery, but it can happen at any time. I hope that by sharing openly about this issue, that someone feels less alone, and less trapped. The biggest lesson to overcome burnout for me was that I was in charge of my life. No one else could be expected to carry me to my desired destination, but I absolutely had the freedom, and responsibility, to make it happen. I learned the importance of knowing oneself and being honest about what I really want rather than what is expected of me.
Another concept from Dr. Angela Duckworth’s Grit is that having an overarching purpose in life helps one have grit, because even if you fail at something specific along the way, you will just find another way to continue the long arc of achieving your greater purpose. I’ve always wanted to do humanitarian medical missions. Indie Docs is about intentionally, methodically, making it happen. Several studies and sources have published that humanitarian medicine can combat burnout among physicians, and the reasons are fairly obvious. By helping those with less resources, we get that “givers high” and feel like we have an awesome purpose, and I truly believe there is nothing better in life than that.
There are many other great posts and discussions on burnout, but the one that really got my attention several months ago was the ChooseFI podcast with guest The Happy Philosopher, where he talked about his burnout and recovery; this got me reading his blog, and there are numerous fantastic posts about purpose, meaning, and his own story about burnout. This is a great resource to start with if you are struggling with it. I hope that my little contribution to the subject might connect with someone and help you know that you’re not alone, you’re not weird for feeling this way (over half of physicians have symptoms of burnout!), you’re human, you’re the boss, and you can make your life into a fantastic story that you’ll be happy and proud to live out.
Feel free to email me at joy@indiedocs if you’re struggling or just want to share your experience, or share your own story in comments below. If you have thoughts of self-harm, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or seek help at your local emergency department.
My alarm beeped at 5:00 a.m., and I was instantly awake. I roused my sister, and we donned our jeans and rubber boots before heading outside in the dark. Gravel from our driveway crunched underfoot as we hurried to the barn, banged on the wall to encourage the rats to hide, and flung open the wooden door to retrieve the feed and hay for our mares. We sat on the steps waiting for them to finish their breakfast, anticipating the joys of our daily trail ride. The air was already warm and thick with humidity in the Mississippi summer, and if we didn’t get the horses on the trail with the sunrise, it would be too hot. Tack on, we mounted and sauntered down the road, taking an easy pace for the first hour through Mr. Buddy Crawford’s pastures to the beautiful old pine forrest trails. The mystical beauty of the morning and perfect harmony with my horse, Naomi, filled me with joy every day of the summer. As we emerged from the woods, a long straight stretch of unused cornfield made for the perfect runway, and my sister and I raced our horses across. Naomi responded to my voice command, “GO!” with unbridled enthusiasm, and the thrill of galloping across the flat grass course was like no other. At the end of the ride, I could tell she was just as happy as I was. This horse was my soul-mate; she came when I called, sensed my moods, and would follow me anywhere. She was easily spooked, but I knew all of her quirks. We returned to the barn and went about our day, watching the antics of our goats, dogs, and cats, and always looking for more adventure.
At this phase of life, around age 8-10 years old, I simply knew who I was, what I wanted, and what I liked. Shortly thereafter, around middle-school, my self-consciousness soared while I became thoroughly confused about what I liked and wanted. Unfortunately, that “phase” of life continued through high school and in some form through college, and young adult life. I made decent decisions for majors, friends, career, life-partner (ok an astonishingly fantastic decision on that one!), but I didn’t have that effortlessly pure, distilled sense of who I was. I also didn’t realize that this was the case, until I faced my own big monstrous burn-out during residency. This topic deserves it’s own post, which I will eventually write, but for now suffice it to say that it took months for me to work through the challenges associated with it, and when I was finally emerging from those doldrums I had a burning question constantly on my mind: What would my 10-year old self think of me now?
It was hardly a rhetorical question, and I had lots of answers. First of all, I would have been appalled at the lack of book-reading happening. As a child, I devoured stacks of fiction-book series. I read in my room, in the car, in the yard, in trees, at night, first thing in the morning, on the bus…I was a bookaholic. If I recall correctly, I was into several equestrian stories, maybe had just finished all the Boxcar Children, Baby-sitters Club, Chronicles of Narnia, and Saddle Club books. Anyway, at the point of my burn-out recovery in residency, i hadn’t read a novel since 4th year of medical school, when I read one chapter each night of War and Peace to help me fall asleep; it took me about a year to finish (short chapters) but I loved the ritual.
I also would have been perplexed as to why I didn’t write more. I always enjoyed journaling and writing stories, and even through high-school and college I nurtured the interest and skill in writing. I took AP English and was an English major in college; I wrote all the time. Even as a math (double) major, I wrote an honors thesis (on Non-Euclidean Geometry), which is just to say, I worked in writing at every opportunity. As a med student and resident, I never wrote anything except daily notes and H&Ps.
The next one was even more painful to admit to that little girl of my past…I had grown up into a woman who was too busy for a dog. This was a profoundly sad realization, and was decidedly the catalyst for springing me free of the burnout and depression because I made his resolution: “If I’m too busy for a dog, I’m just too damn busy and something has to give.” I decided then that this would be one of the barometers of my life to keep things in balance. And I adopted, and got adopted by, my soul-mate dog Ramble. (If you want some insight into how low I felt at this point in life, listen to the song, “Too weak to Ramble,” by Dr. Dog, which inspired his name.)
Maybe one last big one would have been participating in humanitarian work and travel, essentially being connected to current events. I had picked cardiac surgery as a specialty and was pretty determined to not fall back on what I felt was a commitment to that field, but increasingly I felt that trauma surgery was so much more intricately connected to the community and current affairs, which I was very interested in. I did go on a trip with a cardiac surgery group (Novick Cardiac Alliance, which is a fantastic organization I will write more about in future posts) to Ukraine, and learned a lot there about delivering superb quality, highly advanced surgical care in a developing country, but I was much more interested in what was going on with the folks being bombed at the border than with the cardiac stuff. I hadn’t really made being an activitist in global health topics a priority with my time and efforts to that point; I was just trying to “get through” training.
Ramble and I went for hikes every weekend that I was free from work that spring, summer, and fall. His influence on my life was profound, and taught me to be open to sharing my time and energy with the right people (and creatures). I also wrote a couple of articles for a local independent journalism group. I picked up some good books to read. I started the first Global Surgery Journal Club at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and networked with some awesome surgeons and residents who had similar interests. I’ve never had a recurrence of burnout or depression.
So many people go through similar growing pains in their early 30s, it’s almost a cliché. But the transformation was real, and was about taking back my life in small ways, and stopping that utter neglect of all the things that made me “Me.” But where am I going with this long, long post? What’s it got to do with Indie Docs, or Global Medicine?
Learning about myself, what I genuinely like, how I truly want to spend my time, has been a challenge and has developed some skills of insight. It almost feels like a muscle that started out pretty weak those few years ago. It can be quite stressful to trust myself to step off the prescribed path of daily routine or academic medicine, and even more-so for choosing a really unusual career narrative.
Josh and I have discussed the subject, “What do we want our lives to look like in 5 years,” countless times, and we are still discovering the answer.
Fortunately, through her interview on the ChooseFI podcast, I discovered Jillian from Montana Money Adventures. I started working through her mentoring worksheets, and I was blown away by the insight they provided me. I asked her permission to use the worksheets as topics for discussion here, to which she has graciously agreed. So in upcoming posts and maybe on some podcast episodes, Josh and I will use her mentoring worksheets to answer the questions of how we are purposely designing our lives, engineering our time and finances, and thinking about the future in order to be true to our most quintessential goals (doing humanitarian medicine!)
I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this past week. I’ve designed my year so that I get lots of time at home by taking a research position rather than an attending job. I’ll be doing some locums assignments as well to keep my skills sharp and gain experience, but doing this “off-year” was one decision I made that may have been different than what most surgeons would think is the right way to spend my first year out of training. With our unique circumstances, and how much fun I am having with my girls AND with stretching my skills as a researcher, and I’m secure in knowing that I made the best decision for us.
The ability to answer these simple questions of what we really want in life will be central to making sure we make the right decisions about what jobs to take this year, particularly in order to facilitate our bigger goals of making humanitarian medicine a major part of our lives. The decision could enable us to have the freedom to pursue many global surgery projects, or strap us to confining responsibilities.
There are trade-offs to every scenario, pros and cons to weigh, futures to consider (the girls’ in addition to ours), and plain old money questions. But all of those specifics take a back-seat to the simply being able to know and do what will make us happiest and give us the deepest sense of purpose.
With the help of some great mentors this year (stay tuned for that!), I am certain that we will find the right path.
Joy has really been the catalyst behind getting this website site started. On a drive home from Minneapolis one day, she started talking about an idea for a blog that could serve as a resource for people interested in global healthcare. She had done a lot of research, figured out how to obtain the domain name, start the website, etc, but she couldn’t figure out what to call it.
She was so excited about the concept; honestly, I didn’t think one thing or the other about it. I liked the idea, but didn’t intend to get involved much. But because I could tell it was important to her, I participated in brainstorming names, trying to help her dig-in to what was driving this desire in her to make a website and blog. Eventually, we came to Indie Docs, combining the thought of indie music (the liberated, do-it-yourself attitude that has changed the music industry over the past few decades and resulted in many of our favorite bands and tunes), and, of course, the concept we are hoping to achieve of being free to pursue global health projects. Like I said though, I thought of this website as her passion project, not mine, or even ours.
Part of my–dare I say it–disinterest, stemmed from the fact that at this time I had commenced my final and toughest year of training as a chief resident. Combine that with the fact that we have a little girl, and at the time, another on the way (who is now here as of September 24th!), and trying to find a job, I didn’t have much mental energy for other things. But Joy’s enthusiasm is infectious and, within the seed of her idea, I started to see the many possibilities in it.
I’ve always been a big fan of talk radio, mostly NPR shows like This American Life, Fresh Air, and Radiolab; eventually I have found my way to podcasts, of course, and I devoured Serial, S-Town, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Missing Richard Simmons, and many, many others. It’s such a populist art form and a brilliant way to tell stories, share ideas, and explore all the little nooks and crannies that exist in our world. I mean, 15 years ago, would anyone ever have produced a radio show about figuring out why Richard Simmons has disappeared from public life? Or spend a whole series on telling the life-story of an eccentric paranoid genius in Sh**town, Alabama?
Stories have always influenced the direction I think I want to take in life. When I was young and watched Karate Kid, I wanted to take karate. When I saw Top Gun, I wanted to be a pilot. I abandoned both pursuits eventually (made if further in karate than in becoming a pilot). Maybe growing up is choosing a story that inspires you, and sticking with it. It was the story of Paul Farmer as told by Tracy Kidder in Mountain Beyond Mountains that led me to become a doctor. It’s the stories we were both raised on of Jesus physically ministering to the poorest, least powerful, least cared-for that I think serve as the bedrock for why we want to work in global healthcare.
Truthfully, we are just now figuring out how to enact both of these sensibilities and, other than becoming doctors, we haven’t done that much in the way of caring for the poor other than a couple of short-term trips, relief efforts from afar, small amounts of charitable giving, etc. We’ve been trying to get through school and training, but now that we are finishing up with that part, we are starting to look at each other as we enter our mid-to-late thirties and say, If not now, when? And beyond that, How do we start?
I don’t know how or when the idea of doing a podcast for the site came to my mind. There was no inciting event, or thunderbolt from the sky. I’ve always tried to learn the stories of people working in global neurosurgery. When I was a medical student, I went to the CURE hospital in Uganda, and learned about Dr. Ben Warf, who was the first neurosurgeon I came across that showed me neurosurgery was not only possible, but could thrive in an low-resource setting. When I go to national neurosurgery meetings, they almost always have a session on international neurosurgery efforts, and I am amazed during the presentations by the intelligence and effort of people like Drs. Kee Park, Dilan Ellegala, and Michael Haglund who are changing the paradigm of global neurosurgery. My former senior resident, Will Copeland, made the decision to go right out of residency to live and work in Kenya (with his wife and six kids!), and has shown me it’s really possible. Joy and I think these stories, and stories of people like them, hold the key to figuring out how we are going to achieve our ambitions of joining the global health community.
And so the past few weeks, I’ve learned about microphones and pop-filters, Garage Band and Zencaster, how to use the Seriously Simple Podcasting app for Word Press (how to use Word Press at all really), how to register a podcast with Apple, make a logo, and on and on. I’ve also learned that I am as passionate about this as Joy is, that it is our project. We set out together to become physicians, and eventually a neurosurgeon and trauma surgeon, so we could gain skills we enjoy and that would be useful in global healthcare. Now we are setting out to discover how to employ them, and as part of that, finding, sharing, and learning the stories of people who are already doing just that in a variety of ways.
The podcast will include episodes in which Joy and I tell our story as it unfolds, interview others about their experiences, and reflect on how these interviews are shaping our thinking about what we are going to do next. We have several great interviews lined up already, starting with Sean Dupont, a general surgeon who Joy did residency with, who is just getting started working in Niger, as well as Will Copeland and Kee Park, both of whom I mentioned above. We will talk about how they manage their lives and families, finances and careers, and what inspires them to do the work. Stay tuned!
In college I had a list of things I wanted to do before I got married or graduated. One of them was to be a counselor at one of those fun outdoorsy mountain camps. I got my chance right before my senior year, and I was really pumped about hiking to Blue Ridge peaks, making camp-friends, and mentoring youngsters. The pay wasn’t great, but they offered an extra $15 per week for life-guards, so I signed up for their Wilderness Lifeguard Certification course. I knew that the requirements included an initial test of a 500-yard swim, so I conditioned ahead of time at the local YMCA where I was a spinning instructor. I arrived for training to our lovely mountain lake in late May. The waters were frigid. They were so cold, we were told to get out of the water every ten minutes to let our core temperatures warm up to avoid hypothermia. The time came for the 500-yard test, and I confidently lept in the water and stretched out for freestyle swimming. As my face broke the surface of the frigid lake, my respiratory muscles immediately spasming so that I snorted icy water into my nose and mouth. I lifted my face out of the water while trying to maintain my stroke and choked out a mouthful of water and heaved in a very brief, shallow breath before the spasm made me cough again. With a bit of grace from the instructor, I was allowed to gain my composure before proceeding with the test, and with all my willpower and concentration focused on breathing between the chest spasms I managed to finish. Further challenges included deep lake dives to the bottom for a “sweep,” that resulted in one of the other trainees bursting an eardrum, and my first personal experience with true, all-consuming claustrophobia and vertigo in the pitch-black lake bottom. If I had known how to quit, I would have. I struggled on the final to haul a guy 100 pounds bigger than me out of the lake, but I passed my certification.
A few weeks later, I reluctantly led a bunch of little girls on a white-water tubing trip along with 5 other lifeguards. There were about 30 campers, from 6 to 17 years old. My reluctance was due to what I considered unsafe river conditions; heavy rains had increased all rapids by 2 classes, and the river was so swollen with torrential currents, and I didn’t think the little girls and weak swimmers could handle it. Alas, my strong opinions were over-ridden by the other guards, who suggested that we have a system where I “tested” the tubing route as the front lifeguard and then made the decision. I struggled to traverse a rapid as my foot got caught between two large rocks, and looked back to try to wave off the other lifeguards to indicate that I was right, we shouldn’t be in the water! But the wall of campers in inner-tubes coming towards me confirmed that it was too late. I had to abandon my float to rescue one girl who flipped out, and another got passed me. She was swept beyond the deep pool that should have been the exit point on the brief tubing course. I caught up to her and we slipped down a small set of rapids to the next deep pool and I hauled her out. At this point, I was pretty mad, but out of sight of the group. I planned to march up the bank with her and demand everyone get out of the river. I was rehearsing my speech when I heard calls of help from the far side of the river.
What happened next inside my brain is completely inexplicable to me. My conscious thoughts were loudly in denial: They cannot be our campers; they are boys; they do not belong with our group; I do not have to get back in that freezing water. But they were our campers and I found my body moving, first toward my safe camper on the bank asking her to run and get help, and then into the water. The river bank was covered in softball size smooth, slippery rocks. Every step I took, I stumbled. I finally got to water deep enough for me to crawl like a salamander toward them, and I was horrified as they crossed my horizon from left to right. I struggled and crawled and pushed, and finally caught the current. They were gone. I desperately swam down the river, crashed over a rapid, and looked for them. It was another set of rapids before I caught them. Each time I slid over the rocks and crashed down the drop, it hurt. It hurt my feet, my back, my knees, and my legs. I caught the girls and hung on to both of their tubes; somehow they had stayed together. I remembered in our white-water training we were supposed to keep our feet up so that they wouldn’t get stuck between riverbed stones and result in our ankles getting snapped as our bodies got jack-knifed by the current, but I was completely powerless to stop myself from trying to put my feet down to slow us. We met rapid after rapid, and each time I was holding onto the tubes and skidded down the rocks on my back with my head forced down under the tubes and water surface; I braced myself for a blow to the head that I was sure to come.
In the midst of all the turmoil, my brain still somehow made room for thoughts of blame and disbelief, and I was filled with a furious rage like I had never known before. I was angry at the pain and the fearful thought racing across my mind of, “THIS is how people die on rivers. We could all 3 die. THIS is how it happens.” I tried to steer us back to our bank, but made no progress. As I got a brief respite from skidding over the rocks, I looked far down-river, and I’ll never forget what I saw: 100% whitewater. All of the wide-open river in front of us was a churning and rocky field of rapids. I panicked and kicked as hard as I could toward the far bank. One of the girls got pummeled on the back by a large rock and almost popped out of her tube. I held her and her tube and the other tube, and kicked. We landed in an eddy. It all stopped.
I trained my eyes to the water for campers, expecting more victims to be floating down. My rage grew. Beaten up, we hiked barefoot a mile or so downriver, across a bridge, back to our group, and I expected panicked colleagues and a hero’s welcome. Heck, I half-expected some helicopters to be canvasing the river looking for us–it felt like we were gone for hours! What greeted us instead was disinterested blank stares and the phrase, “Oh, we didn’t realize you were gone.” Needless to say, I lost it. I must have said something fairly scary, because within a few minutes, everyone was out of the river, headcount was done, and we were in the vans. I fumed. How could they not even know we were missing?
It took me a while to get over my anger and to stop ruminating about the close-call, but what I ultimately learned was a really profound lesson. As uncomfortable, and frankly horrible, as that experience was, I realized in discussing what had happened with the other lifeguards that I would not have wanted to trade places with anybody. If someone else had made the rescue instead of me, I would have been crazy jealous. Of course I wish it had never happened, but that’s not reality. It did happen, and in some form or fashion it will happen again. At this point I was heading toward med school, and I decided then and there that I wanted to go after those people that I would encounter throughout life that need rescuing. As a trauma surgeon, in a literal sense “rescuer” has become my chosen vocation.
Residency was at times pretty uncomfortable. Med school, too. I never reached the level of acute suffering, and certainly not personal endangerment, I felt on the river, but I remembered that experience and was emboldened to persevere. My medical missions experiences have also been uncomfortable at times, like when I got norovirus 15 weeks pregnant in Guatemala and needed 5 liters of normal saline before I stopped feeling dizzy. Or sleeping on army cots, working in heat, and failing to fix everybody. My experiences are a mere pittance compared to what our colleagues in war zones and refugee camps endure as they risk everything to rescue as many as possible.
Advocating for a cause is also frequently uncomfortable. Sometimes I still feel like I’m yelling into the abyss of disinterested blank faces trying to convince people that we should be doing something different. Especially in situations that I feel are dangerous or risky, this can be frustrating and draining. In the global health world, the need for advocacy is infinite and immediate. I think this may be among the main stressors of the field. Many worthy causes, and our passion projects, will suffer from lack of attention and support, but it will be up to us to make a strong case for why people should care about what we do. Indeed, people’s lives depend on it.
I suspect the “rescuer trait” is common among humanitarian medicine providers. However, I have also encountered many people who are unprepared for the discomfort and the pain that come with this lifestyle, and it shows in grumpy attitudes, intolerance to local culture, slow progress, and early burnout. I have to admit that I myself was not prepared for the discomfort involved in a river rescue, or even in being a lifeguard at all. We need to carefully prepare ourselves for reality rather than just hoping the mountaintop experiences to put enough wind in our sails needed to fuel the mission. We need to be mindful of our inner conflicts as we encounter difficulty, and support one another as we process new challenges. We need to work to recognize when a colleague needs to talk about it, and lend a sympathetic ear.
My little adventure in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain planted this seed in my mind, and I hope that as my professional ambitions take me through some arduous experiences I keep the perspective that it is my privilege to be the one jumping into the river.
I am spending a year as the Trauma, Critical Care, General Surgery Research Fellow at Mayo. I have time to focus full-time on projects that will hopefully make a difference, expand knowledge, and really help our patients. I have aspirations of completing a couple of Quality Improvement projects, which is a very particular type of research with roots in sophisticated industries that have developed complex strategies for minimizing risk and errors. I have attempted a project before and essentially got nowhere, as I didn’t even know where to begin. So I signed up for the Quality Academy, which in true Mayo fashion, was an efficient, information packed, slick course that gave us all the tools we needed to get going on our projects. We covered a broad range of topics, and I was inspired by many of the thought processes and exercises presented there, but non stood out to me as more profound that the so-called “Change Despair Curve.” It looks something like this:
Now this was not the exact curve in our presentation, but it’s essentially the same. The curriculum stated that any change, whether personal or institutional, small or large, is accompanied by this same terrible transition by all involved parties. Even if the change is obviously positive and gets unanimous support at the beginning, there is a valley where everyone is bummed.
The reason I thought this was so profound is that I have seen it play out in my toddler’s reaction to 100% of suggestions I have made to her in the past 6 months or so. That’s not an exaggeration. I say, “Banana?” and she gives me a tortured expression and says, ‘NO DON”T WANNA NaNeeeI!!!” before her face softens and she holds out her hand for the gift. Every transition, change in our momentum, new idea, or suggestion of any change in the current activity and state of affairs is met with initial resistance. So of course I smugly thought, “Ah motherhood, giving me yet another edge in the professional world,” and gave myself a mental high-five.
This curve represents the challenges we will all face as we try to do good in the world by changing the status quo. All stakeholders will eventually get sore with us and with our ideas. We will get depressed about our projects and moving and traveling and starting new ventures. We will have to convince ourselves and colleagues that the change is worth it, over and over again. With perseverance, what is there on the other side of the difficulty is higher quality projects and a life of more purpose and impact.
I encourage every professional interested in global health to get acquainted with the principles of Quality Improvement, as we should be held accountable for proving the quality of any new endeavor or change we implement. We need to show that the change and resources required are justified, and having the right tools to do this analysis is part of the job description of a humanitarian physician. If your institution does not have resources available to get you started, email me at email@example.com and I will send you everything I can to help.
What life-lessons have you learned from something like “Quality Improvement?” How important do you think quality research projects are to the field of global medicine? Please leave comments below!
The decision to select a specialty in medical school is one of the most exciting and intimidating moments in our careers. Many factors and external influences weigh in, even among students planning for more conventional career paths than us with global health ambitions. In the context of global medicine, won’t your specialty have different presentations of disease and treatments, as well as potential projects for research? Certainly, your case list as a plastic surgeon in the U.S. will look quite different than in a developing country. Some specialties have been involved in the public health realm for decades, like pediatrics and infectious disease, while others are recently emerging as population needs have been brought to light, like surgical oncology. So how do we commit to just one specialty?
How We Did It: The Path to Specialty Isn’t Always a Straight Line
As Josh and I entered medical school, we had many discussions about our big-picture goals and what specialty we should choose. We talked about the fields with big impact factors, thinking seriously about fields like obstetrics and infectious disease, as these areas seemed to have an obvious impact on large populations and seemed to be popular choices for others interested in humanitarian projects. Like many students in our class, we attended all of the interest groups for medical specialties, largely for the usual free lunch offered, and I genuinely could see myself doing a variety of things as 3rd year approached. Once into my clinical rotations, I mostly felt happy and immersed in whatever rotation I was on, with a few notable exceptions. I preferred the hospital to clinic settings, and preferred high acuity to chronic illnesses. I enjoyed working fast with high intensity.
Because I had amazing mentors in the field, I decided to pursue cardiac surgery. At the same time, my husband was strongly favoring neurosurgery; he talked often about how he worried that his specialty would not be useful in underserved areas. My perspective was that we should just choose the fields we were most passionate about, and make a way to provide the care where it didn’t already exist.
We had many conversations that seemed to go round and round about these topics. Nearly every car ride lasting longer than 15 minutes, this was the discussion. What should we become? Was that choice consistent with our hope to become humanitarian physicians?
Our 4th year, Josh did a sub-I month at a Cure Hospital in Uganda, working with the neurosurgery staff. This rotation helped solidify his confidence that there was plenty of potential for global neurosurgery projects.
We both matched into our dream program at Mayo in Rochester, MN. He in neurosurgery and me in general surgery with intentions to pursue cardiac. I went on a trip to Ukraine with an amazing organization called Novick Cardiac Alliance, and I saw first hand a successful project to elevate care in an underserved country. They had similar projects all around the world, and I loved hearing the accounts from the nurses, intensivists, and surgeons, about their different locations. This experience was formative. It showed me first hand that sophisticated, cutting edge, and resource-intense surgical care was possible anywhere. However, the irony of this trip was that the actual cardiac surgery that was happening was less interesting to me than the bombing of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk 50 miles away, with possible traumatic injuries that needed tending, and the illusion of cardiac surgery as the perfect fit for me began to crack.
Within the year, I decided, definitively, to switch to Trauma and Surgical Critical Care as my specialty. It’s a perfect fit for me for many reasons, and is certainly one of those fields that has relevance in any setting around the world. Trauma is emerging as a hot topic of discussion for global surgery funding and improvement projects, as it is the leading cause of death and disability among young people. I do admit that this is one of many aspects that attracted me.
One detail I would like to mention, but not dwell on (I’ll save the long story for another post), is that I personally experienced a traumatic injury in a motor vehicle accident in high school, which was extremely formative for me. It undoubtedly changes my perspective when caring for my patients. However, I resisted going into the field of trauma surgery for a long time even though it weighed heavily on my mind. Having pondered this for a while, I think that I was rebelling a little bit against the idea of letting this negative experience steer my life in such a way. Ultimately, I think that the influence of this incident will enrich my passion for the field and help me to connect with my patients on a personal level.
Another attractive aspect about my field is that because it encompasses trauma care, surgical critical care, acute care general surgery, and elective general surgery, I can be quite flexible in how I work. Not to mention where I work. I can vary my schedule, and every week can be a little bit different depending on if I’m in the ICU, covering Trauma, or doing elective cases. Personally, I think that any job that was the same schedule, 9-5, week in and week out, would lead to burn-out for me. I like variety.
Josh has never waivered from his decision of neurosurgery, and he has had the benefit of observing one of his former chief residents, Will Copeland, MD, move his family to Kenya to work at Tenwek Hospital. Dr. Copeland is doing outstanding work there and is a great role model for Josh.
As I was discussing this post with Josh, he quickly surmised, “I think I know someone in every surgical subspecialty doing humanitarian work.” We are lucky to be in a place where our colleagues and friends have these shared ambitions and have launched into humanitarian careers around the world.
I’ve also benefited from many connections in social media, particularly Twitter, where countless organizations representing the full variety of medical specialties are represented. Online journal clubs are becoming more common, as are twitter-hosted journal club discussions (@MayoGlobalSurgJC for one example). To see the many excellent accounts I follow on twitter, see my list under my profile at @IndieDocs1.
In the end, I chose the specialty that suited my personality and interests, as did Josh. The simplest way I can describe my decision is that I chose what sounded like the most fun to me, and I’m very happy and confident with the choice. I took into consideration personal as well as professional goals. There is no doubt that we will both have abundant opportunities to serve patients and elevate local surgical care if we remain dedicated to that cause. Therefore, the answer to the topic, “How to choose a specialty,” is both simple and complex. Pay attention to the little thoughts and reflexes in your mind as you encounter diseases and treatments in each field, and be honest with yourself about what truly interests you. Allow your past experiences to form the type of doctor you are going to be. Be open minded about the possibilities of providing advanced-level medical and surgical care in low and middle income countries. Seek mentors and role models, but don’t choose a specialty solely because you like or are encouraged by your mentor. Pick what you can do all day every day, and also what will allow you to have a sustainable lifestyle and work schedule. Don’t be afraid to change directions as you obtain new experiences and perspective. If you choose a specialty in which you can work passionately and sustainably, you will undoubtedly have a significant impact as you serve your community.
What weighs into your decision for pursuing a specialty?
Do you have any additional insight or suggestions for young trainees?
June 30, I walked out of the OR around 8:30 p.m., finished my floor work, and turned off my pager, placing it into a pre-addressed manila envelope. I changed clothes and walked out of the hospital for the last time as a General Surgery Resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It is surreal to have this challenge behind me; 6 all-consuming years of my life including my Surgical Critical Care Fellowship, not to mention medical school and the preceding marathon of hard work and stress. I started this website near the end of my residency and had planned to do a post on our crazy dual-residency routine (my husband Josh is a neurosurgery resident), but with board prep and trying to wrap up a million tasks on the to-do list, I never got around to it. Still, I think sharing what life was like these past few years might help someone else navigate their own rocky trail, so I thought I would share some of the more pragmatic aspects of how Josh and I managed our day-to-day routine. In the spirit of Indie Docs, I would like to emphasize that no two lives or routines look the same, and this is all about cultivating our best life and thriving where we have intentionally and stubbornly planted ourselves.
First, we needed quite a bit of help and intentionality to make having a family work. I researched possible childcare options before deciding to start a family; I could not even mentally commit to becoming a mother without having a workable plan. I honestly didn’t think it could work until I researched the au pair programs. I was surprised to realize that the program was affordable, particularly in comparison with the larger full-time daycares (with extended hours) in my city. Having someone live with us was essential since we were often both on-call. I planned to return to work after 6 weeks, and the au pair couldn’t start until the baby was 3 months, so I reached out to family members to help me and was so blessed that my aunts were able to move in with us for 6 weeks to fill in the gap. Looking back, I wish I had considered just slowing down and staying home; I didn’t even seriously look at the finances and just assumed I needed to get back to residency. This was a very hard time physically and emotionally and not something I ever advocate for families and babies, but I digress.
The au pair program limits work hours to 45 per week, so we needed daycare in addition to the au pair. My husband had a stroke of genius in finding our daycare. He searched for all the childcare licenses closest to us, and just started cold-calling them based on proximity. Less than a mile away, in our neighborhood, was a wonderful lady with decades of experience and an opening! Once we hit that 3 month mark, we had our au pair and day care established. For the next couple of years, the routine was essentially the same; I left home around 5:30 or 6, our au pair would keep the baby until 8:30, drop off at daycare until 3:30, then keep baby until we got home around 6:30 or 7. My husband and I did our best to stagger our call nights, but there were plenty of nights when the au pair knew she was also “on call” and we would wake her if we both got summoned to the hospital.
Next for my working-nursing-mom spinning-plate trick: I was hoping to breastfeed as much as possible, but I honestly expected to need to do a combination of formula and breastmilk. I even had a package of formula on hand when we got home from the hospital, just in case. I was lucky enough to have a great supply, and I managed to keep a schedule that allowed me to pump enough milk to create a surplus before going back from maternity leave and then more than enough to keep up with day to day demands for the next year. I’ll be candid here, I was freakin’ proud of myself for making all that milk and for having the discipline and determination to keep going through the year. I’m happy to share my specific schedule with anyone interested, but in general terms it took a lot of time, energy, and so so many calories. I ate more at this time of life than I could even have imagined before. I pumped while getting numbers, while dictating, answering pages, patient phone calls, reading…I may have also nodded off a time or two at 3 a.m. in the ED pump room. I also dealt with a few unsupportive colleagues and staff. One OR assistant told me not to tell him when I was going to pump because it was gross, to which I replied, “Well, considering you are alive, I’m assuming YOU were also breastfed around 50 years ago, so that’s a tad hypocritical.” He laughed and was very protective of my pump-time afterward. On the other hand, one of my attendings never ever wanted to hear about it and wouldn’t even give me 5 minutes between cases (she wanted me there for turnover) to hand-pump in the restroom (I attempted this out of pure desperation because I was in engorgement agony), and I got two bouts of mastitis on her service. Despite the challenges, it was worth it to have the bonding time with my baby and feel like I was providing for her even while we were separated so much by my work schedule.
As a money-saver, (and probably also as me wanting to go the extra-mommy-mile as over-compensation for working so much, ahem) we use cloth diapers. I had help with the laundry from my au pair, but honestly the effort expended on this routine was minimal. I would much rather do a load of laundry than rush out to the store to grab a pack of diapers. We used disposables for travel and at night. After getting used to the routine and realizing how much money you can save even using cloth diapers some of the time, it’s hard to believe that cloth diapers aren’t a more common part of life for most families.
Whenever we had a weekend off together, we were intentional about trying to spend time outdoors. We got into camping during the beautiful Minnesota summers, and we hiked as much as possible.
I used either a woven wrap or a Beco baby-carrier for hikes. We also have a big Osprey baby carrier gifted to us by a neighbor for serious backpacking, which we’ve only used a couple of times, including for a music festival (Eaux Claires).It was pretty awesome for keeping the baby strapped in and comfy while we carted her around from stage to stage.
Admittedly, we didn’t get much time to ourselves for the first 18 months or so, as we were constantly trying to maximize our family time during golden weekends. Having an itty-bitty is stressful for many healthy relationships, and we are no exception. For 10 years together before our first child, Josh and I thrived on spending lots of time with just the two of us, and suddenly we had almost none. One revolutionary change we’ve made in the last 6 months is having date-nights, which has been wonderful for our relationship.
The days and nights over the last couple of years have gone by in a blur. I could not possibly be prouder of my little girl or of my husband. She is thriving with her routine, and she is incredibly loving and affectionate with us, our animals, and her many baby-dolls. Josh is in the thick of his Chief service time now, but I have opted for a research fellowship with a flexible schedule this year in anticipation of baby #2 arriving in September. I know that I will always cherish having this short, precious time to spend with my girls while they are tiny, and it will help me feel eager and ready to take on my first position as a trauma surgeon after Josh graduates next year.
Moving forward as physicians with humanitarian-focused careers, we will need to remember how to focus our time and energy on what truly matters to us. I’ve discovered some amazing resources to help focus our priorities by Jillian at Montana Money Adventures. Mrs. Montana has created some wonderful mentoring worksheets for focusing time and resources that I will be utilizing and sharing here at Indie Docs. Many thanks to Jillian for sharing her wisdom and for being open to allowing us to document how we are utilizing her worksheets.
Until then, I hope that catching a glimpse into our world can help someone realize that having a happy family is possible even with our career demands. In fact, you can be an extended-breastfeeding, cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, semi-crunchy-granola mom AND a surgeon! The key for me has been accepting our reality and feeling satisfied in my efforts (no guilt) and cherishing the precious time I was able to spend with my baby. Also, asking for plenty of help, especially in the realm of childcare, was key. In turn, my hope looking ahead is for a happy future of global surgery work, travel, and a happy family. For me, that’s what Indie Docs is all about.
Enjoy this hilarious, heartbreaking, and candid tribute to nursing moms…
#GirlMed indulgence here. Thanks to Natalie Wall over on Twitter @nataliemwall, who gave out the tip that these “On the Fly” Lululemon pants could be worn to clinic, I have found theworkhorse everything pant.
I was reluctant to drop the $100 on them but totally justified it by thinking they could also work throughout my maternity wardrobe needs.
It is actually and practically true that a 26 week pregnant resident can:
1. Bike to work in these pants (mostly downhill).
2. Put on a blouse and flats (I also paired with a nice black sweater, and a lab coat for procedures) and look professional while rounding on patients
3. Do a HIIT workout in these pants after work (after this 26 hour day, I actually I just rode my bike home, ate cake, and went to bed).
4. Wash and then re-wear on any trip in any airport.
5. Wear multiple times per week if really not dirty/sweaty and changing into scrubs immediately upon arriving to work.
6. Wear home and immediately get down and play with toddler…no harried suit-stripping on home re-entry :).
So one pair of pants can work in virtually any setting of my life short of a cocktail party. I never have cocktail parties, so…Awesome. Money, time, and closet real-estate well spent. I’ll be living in these pants for the next 14 weeks for sure. I might even get them in olive-green!