What Keeps Me Running As a Doctor

I remember to step back and “take it all in.”

Ever since I was a little boy, I have only ever wanted to be a doctor. I volunteered in hospitals; I worked a summer job cleaning colonoscopes; I shadowed my uncle — an ED physician — countless times. I was even a mock code practice patient, having to lie still as resident after resident worked on (and even physically hurt) me.

In college, I spent hours and hours studying to get good grades. I did more volunteering, more shadowing. And after I completed my medical school interview, with the odds stacked way against me, I prayed and prayed and prayed to get in.

I will never forget the day I called in to ask about my status. The woman on the phone sounded confused saying, “Hmm…we sent your acceptance letter last week.” I didn’t believe what I just heard.

So many physicians joking say, “Living the dream,” when they are asked how they are doing. I am living my dream, and with all the annoying frustrations that come with being a physician these days — especially in Critical Care — I always try to remember how badly I wanted in to the medical field — how many hours and hours I spent dreaming, and working, and studying, and praying — and then gasp in awe and gratitude that I am among the select few who have been chosen to work in this field.

Yet, you know what, I know that there are many physicians who would read that statement and roll their eyes. A colleague even remarked to me — if I talk about gratitude — some physicians would say, “If one more person tells me to ‘be grateful,’ I’m going to jump off a bridge!

I get that. And when I think about it more, and about physician resilience in general, I try to remember the advice I was given by my younger cousin on October 10, 2010.

Yet, to do that, I have to go back to June 7, 2009. That warm and sunny — yet very dark — day was the worst day of my life. It was the day my wife and I lost our daughter to cancer.

She battled diffuse large B-cell lymphoma for six months, and during her very last round of chemotherapy, she developed an infection and died of multi-organ failure from septic shock. Her death left me devastated, and there is not a day that goes by that my heart doesn’t ache for her loss.

Later that year, my cousin ran the 2009 Chicago Marathon in her honor, and I watched him from the sidelines. I always thought marathons were for elite athletes only.

Seeing the thousands upon thousands of people running — short, tall, fat, thin, old, young — I was inspired. I don’t know why, but something inside me told me, “You have to run next year.” I was further encouraged by my cousin who ran in 2009, who said to me: “If you run, I will run it with you.”

And so, I signed up for the race and began training in May 2010. After five months of grueling training, October 10, 2010 (10/10/10) came along, and he and I crossed the start line for the Chicago Marathon.

As I was still fresh and running underneath the Grand Avenue bridge, my cousin turned to me and said, “Take it all in.”

As the miles wore on, I was in terrible pain: it was extremely hot, and my legs were burning. I could barely walk, let alone run. It took a tremendous toll on my body. But I always remembered why I was doing it: I was running because my daughter could never run herself.

That is what kept me going. And so, when I did finally cross the finish line, tears streaming down my face, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I knew she was there, smiling and looking down on me, and I was so grateful that I was able to finish the race in her honor.

I try to do the same with my work as a physician and “take it all in.” Medicine is a calling, not just a profession. There is something so special about being given the privilege to take care of someone at their most vulnerable and help them feel better, to be an agent of healing.

And it can be hard. Very hard.

There are so many pressures on physicians today, between all the regulatory rules, and electronic health records — which many doctors have come to hate — and long hours, and the stress of malpractice lawsuits, it can take a huge toll.

Physician burnout is a big deal. Almost half of all doctors have had some signs of burnout, and it is more than half of critical care physicians like me. Burnout can lead to medical errors and even physician suicide. I am not immune to these pressures.

That said, being a physician is like running a marathon. It is long, it is tough, it is arduous. There are so many times that I feel like I want to quit. When that feeling comes, I remember the advice of my cousin as we started the Chicago Marathon in 2010: “take it all in.”

And so, I try as best as I can to stop and remember why I am in healthcare in the first place: to help our patients cross the finish line and survive their life threatening illness. ​It really helps me get through the dark days.