A Doctor’s Journey: Flipping the Script on Physician Burnout
I suspect that my journey from med school to attending is fairly typical.
Residency burnout caught me by surprise though. I followed the path that was set before me: STEM undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, three years of residency, board certification, and eventually working in outpatient clinics as an attending physician.
It was and continues to be a solid and honorable path, walked by many. So what happens when you change your mind?
Loving medical school, but was discouraged by what came next
At first, I was excited about learning the art and science of diagnosis and treatment. I was on my way to fulfilling my purpose of helping people recover from their ailments, a vision I entertained since grade school.
Once in med school, I was home. I studied hard and got honorable grades. I chose internal medicine because I loved the idea of becoming an endocrinologist. I got my first choice for residency, with the added bonus of showing off for Mom and Dad at graduation, picking up a few awards to decorate my copy of the Hippocratic oath. All was set!
For me, medical school was a blast. Residency training on the other hand was petrifying. I wasn’t expecting what was coming at me: a beeper going off every five minutes for anything from Tylenol orders, to GI, bleeds. I was the turkey at the turkey shoot! Anything anytime, quick fixes left and right, hoping I ordered the right one. I felt frazzled and lost. It took a while to feel settled. But settled into what?
Coming to grips with the harsh realities of medical residency training
Once I got my sea legs, I quickly realized that my fantasy of medicine was very different from its day-to-day reality. The mounds of chart work, the uphill battle of meeting the medical needs of the uninsured, the constant rushing. Not to mention the personal toll of loneliness, depression, and emotional and physical exhaustion, all of which nibbled at my soul.
In med school I knew who I was – fierce, confident, inquisitive, and excited about life. By the end of the residency, I morphed into a despondent, not-giving-a-rat’s-ass alien from outer space:
I lost my innocence and it made me angry. It was time to find her again.
In the middle of chaos, life offers good questions
The unexpected twists and turns of the real-life of a resident have their upside too.
They pushed me toward an honest soul searching:
What do I really want out of life? What kind of person do I want to be? What am I really striving for?
For a time, my doctor’s fix-it mind played whack a mole with my existential musings, giving me an out:
- You’ll feel better after your next vacation.
- You worked too hard for this, how embarrassing would it be to give up now.
- What else can you do? This is all you know.
- Yes, you’ll feel much better after that vacation.
I love happy doctors: physicians living and working in purpose
There is nothing more gratifying than to see a physician living and working in purpose. I’ve met many along the way, with a little envy in my eyes. The world needs more of those, regardless of specialty.
My heart aches however when I read a story of a physician who commits suicide.
I want to believe it is preventable.
I too recall resigning myself to living in a dark emotional place, while trying to patch up other peoples’ lives; add to that the stigma of being perceived as weak if asking for support, not to mention the very practical issues of paying bills and earning a living.
In the midst of this reality, having reminders of one’s purpose, while finding new sources of inspiration can start flipping the script.
Pressing the reset button as an attending physician
Remember the pesky musings? They boomerang back and I am grateful. As an attending, the dust finally settled enough to address them head-on with a good dose of honesty.
Not always easy, but it kept me on a road filled with amazing discoveries that serve me well as a life coach:
- Excellence and perfectionism are wonderfully different.
- No means ‘no’ and yes means ‘yes’, at work and at home.
- What a relief to retire my superwoman cape (the world did not fall apart).
- There is also a difference between service (healthy), and sacrifice (unhealthy).
Most of all, I learned that getting back to what was truly important to me did not take away from others.
On the contrary, my family, friends, and collaborators experience a more authentic me, and that’s happily contagious.
Does it mean I have to quit medicine if I want a different kind of life?
Not necessarily. Every person’s path is unique to that person. Your call is a noble one, and your dedication to it is undeniable.
Taking stock of where you are now professionally and personally means you are choosing to serve from a healthier place. Your patients, parents, children, spouse(s), siblings, and friends will notice the difference. Your colleagues will want more of what you got!
You are at the center of your life, with the power to recreate it within or outside of medicine, or with a combination of the two.
From attending physician to life coach for physicians
After leaving medicine, I stepped into my love of music and performance. Along the way to self- rediscovery, I trained in health and wellness coaching, life and spiritual life coaching in my quest to live a life that incorporated all my loves, while honoring my passion for supporting others in their healing.
Over time, my clients included serving professionals who were/are burning out: the teacher who wanted out, the minister overwhelmed with the demands of serving others, the professional thrilled by a side gig, to medical professionals overwhelmed by a crumbling home life. All still excited about the future, now looking for support with next steps.
I have a vision of healthy doctors, fulfilled by their life’s work and thrilled about the life they lead at home, at work, and in new endeavors.
Remember that nothing you’ve experienced in the past is wasted. It teaches you about you and what you’re made of; it pushes you to be honest about where you really want to be. And yes, you can create and live the life of your design.
Schedule Coaching Sessions with Coach Gabriella Dennery MD at https://www.docworking.com/physician-coaching/
Coach Gabriella Dennery MD
Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.
You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.
The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).
Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.
Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.
After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.