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Wednesday Apr 22, 2015

Balancing Act: There Is More to My Life Than Just Medicine

We are so much more than the sum of our parts. As family physicians, we treat patients who have an amazing variety of problems. There are virtually as many chief complaints in our ledgers as there are patients to go with them. We see headaches and allergies and chest pain and gastroesophageal reflux disease and hypertension and lacerations. And the list goes on.

And much like the variety in our patient populations, we need variety in our lives. Much has been written -- including on this blog -- about physician burnout and work-life balance. Sadly, little is written about the things we do outside the office or hospital. 

Who we are as people was cemented long before we finished residency. Often, our innate love of conversation, creativity, learning or some other skill or interest is what drove us to medical school in the first place. Out of some misbegotten fear of being selfish, we often forgo that one day a week, or even one day a month, during which we take time to do something just for ourselves.

Here I am preparing for the Warrior Dash in Mountain City, Ga. Physicians should follow our own advice more often and make time to take care of ourselves.

I frequently care for patients with anxiety and depression. One of the first questions I ask is, "What do you do for fun?" When I asked a patient that question recently, it dawned on me that rarely do I see that question asked of physicians in articles concerning physician burnout. With all the publicity this topic has garnered -- and so many lives on the line -- no one seems to ask one of the fundamental questions that helps gauge our mental well-being. I fear we don't ask it enough of ourselves, either.

Although concerns about patient care and the business of medicine fill our workday, and family obligations account for much of our time away from work, we still have to make time for our passions.

I enjoy writing. I also enjoy creating many types of art. From movies to paintings to sculpture to woodworking, I like using my hands to create. In some cosmic, karmic balance, it seems to offset so much of the destruction I see both in the clinic and in the world around us. I have friends whose passion drives them to scale tall rock structures and others who find peace in riding a bicycle for miles. You may enjoy knitting or flying or sitting quietly on a rock. The important part is not the activity, but the feeling the activity inspires.

It may sound trite, but we each need to be reminded why we go to work each day. We need to be reminded why we fight to save lives. We need to be reminded to live our own lives. Just as our brains cannot function without glucose, we cannot function properly without fun. Our bodies need to recharge. That's why we eat. Our brains require the same, which is why we sleep. Our spirits, if you will, require the same level of maintenance. Activities that bring us joy serve the same purpose as food or sleep. They allow us to constructively deal with the complex emotions tied to caring for the chronically ill. Pursuing an activity because you want to -- not because you have to -- rekindles the passion and fire we so desperately need when caring for our patients.

The body is more than an eye or a foot. So, too, are we more than physicians. No one is only one thing. Being a doctor is fundamental to who I am, but it is also only one part. I diminish myself when I ignore the other parts. I'm a father. I love spending time with my three daughters. I'm a husband. Spending time with my beautiful, patient wife brings me joy like nothing else. I'm a writer. In both this blog and others, I write about the things I love. I'm a tech geek. Every new gadget purchased brings a sense of wonder that I've felt since I was 5 and used my first computer mouse. I'm a doctor. I thrive on seeing lives changed by improving the health of my community.

Fitting all of these activities into my day-to-day life requires careful time management and purposeful scheduling. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in each day, and I need to sleep for a few of those, so I'm limited in the number of things I can do per day. Fortunately for me, there are lots of days each week and even more when looked at in terms of months. It takes a conscious effort to incorporate these small breaks into my life, but they don't lose their flavor through lack of spontaneity. I still enjoy writing or painting just as much when I've planned the time a month in advance as when I get to do it spontaneously. Much as I do with other aspects of my life, I set realistic expectations. That way, when I get extra time to put together a video or play a game with my family, that activity far exceeds my expectations.

No one-size-fits-all method to combat burnout exists. We each have to figure out the balance our life requires and how to get there. For me, were I to remove any one of the things I enjoy, my life would not cease to progress. I wouldn't just lie down and die. But neither would I feel completely whole.

I think Ferris Bueller said it best: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Gerry Tolbert, M.D., is a board-certified family physician who practices in northern Kentucky. A lifelong technophile, his interests include the intersection of medicine and technology. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTolbert.

Posted at 12:04AM Apr 22, 2015 by Gerry Tolbert, M.D.

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