A working vacation?

One of the things I really love about my job is the opportunity to practice in new settings. I think it’s really important both personally and professionally to understand how different health care systems work, and to also understand how one community’s needs differ from other. I also really welcome the opportunity to meet new people and work with new staff in an entirely different setting. Change does the mind and body good.

Most recently, I filled in for a pair of married doctors in Sarnia. They often ask me to come out there when they go on vacation. It’s not exactly a hardship for me to do so, either, given that I’m given free range of their stunning home while I’m out there. They live on the outskirts of town, right by the beach—a truly idyllic setting to do some of that burn-out-busting I spoke of in my last post.

But beyond the obvious benefits of staying in such a lovely environment, I also relish the opportunity to practice in a small town. Working in a larger hospital, you are so often limited by bureaucratic red tape, and the vast array of responsibilities I have there often make it difficult to get in the kind of one-on-one time with patients that makes it so worth while.

Interacting with patients on a meaningful level is just so incredibly important to being the kind of doctor I want to be. As I’ve always said, so much about palliative care is about living—and if you don’t have the chance to truly connect with patients and their families, then I don’t think you’re going to be able to be the kind of practitioner you need to be in this field.

Getting the chance to slow things down a bit and be reminded of just what an impact my work can have on people is always a gift—even if I’m still technically ‘working’ while doing it!

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Beating the palliative burn-out

One of the most frequent questions I get as a palliative doctor is, “How do you do it—day in and day out?” While burn-out certainly isn’t something that’s isolated to my field of practice, I will say that the toll this line of work can take on you both emotionally and physically is extremely high. Anyone who goes into this speciality and thinks they’re going to be immune to burning out probably doesn’t have a realistic understanding of what this line of work entails.

In fact, seeing families going through difficult times does, in many ways, give me an additional insight into what the effect is of this work on my own well-being. People don’t realize that emotions like grief take an incredible toll on your body. And one of the most important things I tell the families and friends of patients is that it’s incredibly important that you take care of yourself. We’re so focused on taking care of our loved one, that we forget that if we neglect ourselves we won’t be any good to anyone.

Obviously the best tact is to choose something that works for your personality and interests. The most important thing is that you aware that burn-out happens to everyone, and that you need to take steps to avoid it.

Coping mechanisms can include a huge wide variety of things: hobbies or crafts, reading, counselling, or just talking about your emotions, sports, movies, writing, cooking, listening to music.

It’s obviously a very individual thing, but the bottom line is that you make the effort to recognize that exhaustion and burn-out are normal, and that you should never ignore it. But you can do a great deal to help prevent it.

So what do I do? I’ve found that the most important things for me to do are to make sure that I eat well and get a full 8 hours of rest every day (this doesn’t necessarily mean sleep). It’s important that you have decompression time where you can not only unwind, but process everything that’s gone on during the day in a positive way. Then I make sure to get some physical activity during the day. For me, the best way to do this is to take my dog Chase out for walks. Not only do I get the exercise and fresh air that helps physically, but I also get the emotional benefit of a little ‘pet therapy’ from Chase (it’s no myth that people with tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol!).

And remember, never be afraid to ask for help. Palliative practioners and caregivers take a lot on their shoulders each day, it’s important to take some of that weight off whenever you can.