In this episode we talk with former surgical pathologist and current Shamanic Mentor and Woman of Medicine about letting your freak flags fly.
“Is there any way you could make room? How could you make room in your life for yourself, for your dreams. For those things that are maybe kind of filed away for ‘someday’ or ‘when I retire.’ It’s like, can you find a little way to make that happen now? It will bring lots of life to your life.” Sarah Seidelmann MD
In today’s episode, Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer talks with physician mentor and author Sarah Seidelmann MD. Sarah was a board certified Surgical Pathologist with a subspecialty in Dermatopathology, a fourth- generation physician living a nature-starved, hectic lifestyle, until a walrus entered her life and changed everything. In this episode she shares about her life as a practicing physician and what brought forth those changes. Turns out, having the big house and the fancy cars was not what she cared about. Tune in to hear about her major pivots, and what she is doing now.
Sarah Seidelmann MD is a practicing Shamanic Mentor and Woman of Medicine and leads transformational travel retreats around the world. She’s also the irrepressible author of several popular books including Swimming with Elephants, How Good Are You Willing to Let It Get?, Born to FREAK, and The Book of Beasties! Sarah resides in northern Minnesota, near Lake Superior with her family and two dogs. Find her at followyourfeelgood.com
Check out her new book available for preorder here: Where the Deer Dream
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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran
Please enjoy the full transcript below
Sarah: Is there any way you could make room? How could you make room in your life for yourself, for your dreams? For those things that are maybe kind of filed away for someday or when I retire, it’s like, “Can you find a little way to make that happen now? It will bring lots of life to your life.”
Jill: Hello and welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Jill Farmer, one of the lead coaches at DocWorking and one of the cohosts of the podcast. Today, I am thrilled and I mean that to be joined by Sarah Seidelmann, MD. She is a fourth-generation physician. She was living in a nature star hectic lifestyle until dah, dah, dah, dah. A walrus entered her life and changed everything. She’s a practicing shamanic mentor and woman of medicine and leads transformational travel retreats around the world. She is also the irrepressible author of several popular books, including Swimming with Elephants, How Good Are You Willing to Let It Get?, Born to Freak and The Book of Beasties. Sarah resides in Northern Minnesota near Lake Superior with her family and two dogs. Sarah, thank you so much for being here. We have known each other now for a decade I think. [laughs]
Jill: We were so young when we first got the chance to have our paths crossed or at least that’s how I look at it. I am just definitely somebody who loves the energy you put out in the world, the work you do, and your writing has been significant and influential to me, and I know to a lot of other people too. So, for those of our listeners who don’t know your story, backup and fill us in a little bit on how Sarah Seidelmann became Sarah Seidelmann MD, who became Sarah Seidelmann today.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here. That walrus, maybe, we should start there about a little over a decade, I started feeling this sense at work. I was a surgical pathologist with a specialty as kind of a sub-specialization in dermatopathology. Working in the tertiary care center, and for years like loved my job, like was obsessed, it was just like my favorite thing ever. Then as life got “lifier”, and I’m also married to a physician, we have four kids. As the kids started to grow you know, it just started getting more and more complicated. Really, there was a mix of overwhelm with what was going on in our family, and also just starting to feel more and more disconnected at work.
After practicing for about 20 years, so, I just started feeling more, just wasn’t as passionate about it anymore. I realized like not being passionate as a pathologist ain’t a place you want to be because you have to wake up on fire, because when you’re scanning a slide 100,000 cells looking for a handful, five, six clusters of cells, you can’t be asleep at the wheel, and you can’t be not interested in what you’re doing. That really made me nervous. Because I could feel this push-pull between things. I wasn’t sure what it was. It’s not like I got a clear, “You will become this new person,” and this is what you know, it was just this feeling that was really miserable. So, I hired a life coach, which–
At the time life coaches weren’t a thing in Northern Minnesota 10 years ago. Anyway, I was Googling it. I was like, “Well, life coach, that sounds weird,” but it sounds kind of like what I need. So, I hired somebody and it really helped me. The tools she taught me really helped me to enjoy my work more. I had a lot of boundary setting, things that were going on, people pleasing as a woman in practice, I was taking a lot of extra work trying to be nice, trying to alleviate stress for other people. But even after that, I felt like there’s something missing here. So, I eventually designed a sabbatical, which required some downsizing of our house, all kinds of things. It wasn’t a short process but during that sabbatical, still feeling miserable at work, a little better because I learned a lot from the coach about how to feel better with things.
But I stumbled into this ancient concept that the wild animals that cross your path may have messages that are helpful for you. I don’t know, but if you’ve ever been in a crisis or interpersonal or personal crisis, I mean, it was dark times. I was like, “I need help” and I don’t know who can help me but I thought, “I’m so desperate. I would like to listen to a wild animal if they literally have something wise to tell me I am open to that.” So, that summary just started playing with this idea and one of the first beasties that, I like to call them beasties because it covers everything from a dragon fly up to more mythical things like Pegasus and so forth. It was in this little shop in our downtown and I stumbled into this. It was a huge like Taxidermy Walrus that was on the wall. The thing was massive, like three-foot tusks. It was completely arresting and I was like, “Okay, I’m paying attention because this thing is got me like, “I’m all yours Mister or Miss walrus.” I’m not sure which I’m guessing it was a male. I’m like, “Mr. Walrus, if you have a message for me, please lay it on me.”
I was literally lingering around this thing waiting for it to tell me something. The walrus didn’t say much. So, I was like, “Well, I’m just going to do some research about walruses. So, I went on YouTube, watched some footage of them, and I learned a little more about them, and I noticed when I watched the YouTube videos, I don’t know if your listeners have ever seen some footage, I highly encourage you to go there. It’s very excellent. But there were like thousands of walruses. I don’t know how you say it in plural, but anyway, they were littering the beach. They were completely surrendered to the sand, I noticed extremely relaxed, like to the point where you’re like, these walruses are not nervous about anything. They honestly are just so relaxed and so at home in their skin.
The other thing I learned is that they’re apex predators. They have no competition. Once in a while, a polar bear will tangle with the walrus, but very rarely because it’s usually lethal when it happens. I kind of put those two things together, I’m like, “Well, maybe the walrus is here to tell me that, if I could manage to become comfortable in my own skin that maybe, should I choose a new career, I might not have any competition? Should I choose to do something completely different from pathology?” That message really encouraged me a lot and started me on this path of continuing to be paying attention at animals and all kinds of things, and eventually, led me to this path of spirit, which looking back, I think I’d had the call to the spiritual path earlier in my medical career in medical school. I had one patient in particular who died and I remember thinking it was a young woman. As she was dying, I remember thinking, “There’s something we should be doing for her that we are not doing. We were reporting to her, “Your platelets are really low, and we hope they get higher. We’re continuing to try to give you infusions, but they’re not working.”‘
Looking back, I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh, there’s something we’re supposed to be doing. We’re not doing it. I have no idea what that thing is.” I had a full circle moment in 2013. So, several years into this new journey into spirituality and the shamanic path, where I was called to the bedside of a woman who was dying, and I realized I had all the tools that I needed to help this woman, and to help her in this process, and that was just amazing. So, that’s kind of my hero’s journey in a nutshell. But of course, there’s the road of trials and all the things that happened in between there.
Jill: Yeah, really beautifully told and even though, I have heard parts of it, I just love every time, the open heartedness, and bravery, and intentionality, and also willingness to just be open to some pretty big plot twists along the way that seemed to be-
Sarah: No kidding.
Jill: -part of the ride. One of the things that comes up a lot with my physician clients in one-on-one coaching as well as in conversations that we have in our THRIVE community, which is DocWorking, the subscription service that we have for physicians is, this idea that there’s a feeling of being almost trapped. It’s like, “Well, we bought the house, we have the car, got the kids in X school,” and suddenly, you know, as you described, it, not trying to be glib, but maybe there’s a little bit of lost that love and feeling of the position at work. But it feels like there’s no choice. So, I want to back up a little bit on part of your story that you’ve talked about earlier is one of the first steps of making significant changes and the place where you were still able to practice medicine with some renewed meaning and intention, was making some pretty big changes in your personal life around finances to help yourself feel less pressurized. Do you mind talking a bit about that?
Sarah: Not at all and I go into great detail in my book, Swimming with Elephants. At the time when I was sinking into this feeling of, “Oh, gosh, this is not my dream. This is not where I meant to end up, how did I get there.” The talking head song playing in my head. At the time, we lived in a 6,500 square foot house. We had basically just remodeled the kitchen to the tune of something like $350,000. Probably north of there, but I never really wanted to admit that to myself, because it was so embarrassing. Maybe it wouldn’t be embarrassing in Manhattan but in Duluth, Minnesota, it wasn’t something I wanted to talk about.
Right about the time the kitchen was done, it was like my husband and I looked at each other, we’re like “We got to get out of here.” We didn’t really care. The kitchen was gorgeous, the house was amazing, but it was like we were feeling so burdened by the whole thing. So, we were just like, “Let’s put the house on the market.” We put it up for sale, we bid on a house that had been foreclosed that was much smaller, much less expensive, and a much less fancy neighborhood. Then, the 2008 crash hit, that house took like seven months to sell. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I believe in the kindness and love of the universe the way I do now.” Back then I didn’t have a lot of faith, but I was like every morning I’d be reading this Wayne Dyer book. I’m reading into the positive vibrations of the universe. I was like, “I don’t know if I’m making this up but please like please, this is what we want.”
Eventually the house did sell. So, yeah, the downsizing allowed us that little bit of financial freedom that allowed me to take three months off. That was the first little breathing room. So, when I talk to people I’m always like, “How could you give yourself a little breathing room or if you want to go part time, how could you act as if financially you are part time? What would it look like?” I pretend to cut your salary in half or whatever and then what needs to go. Like it becomes very clear what our values are because what needed to go for us was like, “Yeah, the $7,000 Disney cruise, who cares?” We’d already been on it and realized it was lovely but that wasn’t– I think often the story of the Buddha who was living in the palace and his parents didn’t want him to leave and explore the world outside the palace. But once you’ve had the palace, you realize, “That ain’t where it’s at.” [laughs]
The speedboats, the fancy car, they may provide temporary pleasure and I’m not knocking them, like go for it if that’s what really feels good. But for me, what really felt good was being able to explore, freedom felt good to me, and whatever that looked like which was a shifting thing.
Jill: Absolutely. You’ve mentioned Swimming with Elephants, which I love. It’s a memoir on kind of a spiritual sojourn you took that just was really inspirational to me to think about why taking the journey was so important because they lead to discoveries well beyond my little vacuum at home thinking about what I might do on the trip, could happen. So, I’ve read it more than once and I just love it. And your other memoir-ish book in some ways Born to Freak I think it was really revelatory. I know, other physician, friends and clients really appreciated your candor, because for them as you know in the grueling medical education, there’s a lot of, “Hey, keep your own stuff to yourself.” So, for you to be open about your own discovery of ADD as a part of the way your brain functions and coming awake to that in Born to Freak was really powerful. Why did you think it was important to be candid and vulnerable and how hard was it for you to do that?
Sarah: Yeah. Well, I remember when I got the diagnosis of ADHD, I was like, “Wow.” A lot of grieving, I remember reading the famous book by Ed Halliwell on the topic, and I’m just like crying. I was like, “Oh, my God, no wonder this has been so hard. No wonder people don’t always respond to me in the most positive way,” because I can be kind of a bit of a loose cannon or sometimes say things off the cuff without thinking. But that same spontaneity is also a beautiful gift. So, one of the things somebody told me was, “Don’t tell anybody at work because you could lose your job.” It was funny, because I was just like, “Well, I was really upset about that,” because I was like, “That seems so shameful.”
I can’t be honest about who I am and I actually knew there was somebody else at work, who had a kid who was ADHD, and I wanted to run up to them go, “Oh, my God, it’s so cool and amazing. Your kid is amazing and what I’m learning about this “disease or this category of humans” is this and that. I was like, “I will not be oppressed.” Really, the freedom came once I decided I was going to walk away from medicine. But if I had decided I was going to stay, maybe, I would have been scared, could I lose my job, all that kind of stuff and how much courage did it take? A lot.
I remember, because the book is also filled with some saltiness, and swear words, and some very like unattractive stories about myself. I tell a story about parenting during some of these brutal years where one of our kids wanted to go to football camp. He wanted to go, but on the day of football camp, he decided he didn’t want to go. I literally had to physically tackle him in our yard. Basically, get him to go to this camp. It’s just this awful story of me, and then my husband, and how he reacted, oh, my goodness, just not flattering let’s just say. But I wanted to be really open and share what was happening inside me. I was like, “I don’t want to live this way anymore. I want to come into alignment with what are my values,” which are loving my kids, having fun, making things, helping people, using my gifts, which I no longer felt like I was doing in my job.
Jill: I know you have in the past partnered with Patch Adams on working with medical students and those in medical training to rethink some of the ways that the medical training can train your brain to not necessarily take the best care of yourself at times, and that you have been passionate about encouraging people in the medical profession and all professions really to think about creativity as a pathway toward self-care and freedom really in a lot of ways. Can you talk a little bit more about why you feel that it is so important?
Sarah: Yeah. So, Patch Adams, I got to work at his farm. He was not there but we got to teach– an invitation to teach medical school– students excuse me from all over the world, kind of these alternative ideas about healing. So, I presented some shamanism to them. I have amazing memories. He has plans drawn up for an elephant shaped hospital which I mean, when I heard that I was just like, “I will get the plane ticket, whatever. Where are we going elephant shaped hospital? I’m all in.”
He’s a real visionary. One of his sayings is, clowning brings love close. I’ll cry if I start talking about this, but what he does, so radical guys. He goes into war zones and nursing homes where there’s so much loneliness and so much heartbreak. He has people dress up in clown suits and it’s just like so– The medical students, one of the days, we all got to go in and do clowning, and it’s amazing. One day, we also– we went into the woods, we all dressed up in clown costumes– in the clown costumes, we went into this costume bin, and everybody dressed up in the most incredible outfits. You can’t even imagine the good stuff they had at that farm for dress up. I thought to myself, “This to me is a dream. Here we are with all these healers that have the biggest dreams to help the most people all over the planet and they were just like in nature talking with each other and sharing their dreams of healing for the world.”
To me, that was such an important time because I know what happens when they go home. They’re going to hit the grind wall and it’s just like, it is endless, what will be asked of you. As a pathologist, my whole job was to be a disease hunter. Part of my problem with that eventually became that I started thinking, “What creates health?” I don’t understand. I get disease, and I see how that happens, and I can identify it. But what makes people vibrant and what I have learned in these past 10 years is that what makes people vibrant is dancing, telling stories, making art, spending time as “Ariel errands” I think is the quote. Spending time in the sweet territory of our own silence. So, expressing ourselves creatively is one of the ways we bring more life to ourselves, and more health, and vitality. One of the ways we spread that in the world and it’s viral, just like the COVID is viral, the creativity and the joy and love is equally viral, I think. So, that’s what I see as my purpose now is just to like, “Yeah, spread that. Spread that virus of vitality and, yeah, creativity.”
Jill: I love it. One of the other ways that you love doing work and that you have provided a container for people to really have transformational experiences is through travel. Talk about what the impact of travel has been on you and your own life’s journey, and why it’s so important to you to be able to create these experiences for other people as well.
Sarah: Yeah. I think travel just brings us out of our comfort zones, it wakes us up, we’re no longer like things are in business as usual, especially, if you go far enough away to a culture that’s so different from your own. I’ll just share a brief story from when we were in Thailand like six years ago. It was called a pachydermal pilgrimage. So, we spent time in an elephant sanctuary, we went to elephant hospitals, and then we stayed at a place where elephants were actually living on the property, and it was quite amazing. But one of the days, our tour guide took us to this place where the long neck women who come from a tribe in Myanmar and I’m not going to get the right tribal name. But anyway, that’s where they were living in. They were refugees from Myanmar. So we walked into– It was like a village, but it felt more like a fake village. Almost like a Disneyland. But it was set up so the tourists could come and meet them and then shop their wares kind of thing. I remember entering this fenced in area, and I saw the women, and all of a sudden, I just was like, “Oh, there’s so much grief in here like I cannot deal and I did not want to be there.” The women that I was with who were on the trip were lovingly going up to these women by holding their hands and talking with them.
Again, I feel so emotional today. I don’t know what it is. But I was like, “Wow, they’re doing what that’s really amazing.” I’m not there right now and I don’t remember what I did. I think, I wandered at the edges of the fences or something. I just avoided it. At the end of the trip, some of us gave each other some little gifts and one of my fellow travelers who’s an adored friend gave me this gift as I unwrapped it, what was it? It was a doll. It was a long neck woman. I remember going on a spiritual journey with my spirit animal and just asking her like, “What is the–?” Because I knew there was something there and she was like, “You know what, you don’t want to see her suffering, you don’t want to turn towards that, but that’s what you need to do, never turn away.” So, that long neck woman sits on my altar to this day and I remember, it’s just like, it can be so hard to sit with another person who’s suffering, but don’t ever turn away. So, that’s just a profound thing and I couldn’t have learned that particular lesson. I have learned them locally, but it really stands out to me.
Jill: Such a good reminder that when we can let ourselves to be open to the discoveries of what happened when we get outside of our comfort zones, outside of our normal paths– the normal paths, the chopping wood, and carrying water can be spiritual and meaningful practices as well. But sometimes breaking those up into new places of discovery, it can bring in some real meaningful and enlightening things as well. That story, oh, gosh, really touched me. So, thank you for reminding us of that. Finally, what would you like to say to our physician listeners as a former practicing physician, current wife of an MD, daughter of a very well-regarded physician with a storied career, what’s your message right now for physicians who are out doing this work in this season of life, in this season of the world that we’re in?
Sarah: I would say lean into extreme self-care like how could you make some room to take care of yourself knowing that this precious work you do is so important, and how hard it is, and how little appreciation you’re most likely getting for that? If you’re seeing patients, you’re probably getting some. I know, my husband gets a lot. But I would say, yeah, and then is there any way you could make room? How could you make room in your life for yourself, for your dreams, for those things that are maybe kind of filed away for someday or when I retire, it’s like, can you find a little way to make that happen now? It will bring lots of life to your life.
Jill: Beautifully said as always, my friend. For people who want to read your work, maybe come along on one of these incredible journeys with you, learn more about what it is you do, how can they find you?
Sarah: You can find me at followyourfeelgood.com., followyourfeelgood.com. Yeah and you can find my books there, and some classes, and all kinds of things.
Jill: Yeah. You’re definitely somebody who’s very fun to be in the orbit of. So, I encourage everybody to make that connection with you and I want to thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, and honesty, and ideas with us. It was really inspirational and meaningful, and I want to thank all of you who joined us for this conversation as well. Please tell your friends, and come back, and join us for next time on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Until then, I’m Jill Farmer.
Jen: Do you ever feel as a physician that you’ve lost the connection between why you went to medical school and what you’re doing now in your career? As a physician, you’re trying to make so many people happy all day long and you’re trying to accommodate whatever is heaped upon you as excessive as it often is. But what if you had an online community of like-minded physicians facilitated by coaches who specialize in working with physicians to help you get back on track and figure out what matters most specifically to you.
Amanda: I’m Amanda Taran, producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you for being here. Please check us out at docworking.com. And please don’t forget to like and subscribe. Thank you for listening.
Coach Jill Farmer
Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.
She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.
She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.
Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.
Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.