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Healing the Healer: Self Care is Not Selfish

The canary lives in the coalmine as a harbinger of toxicity. The canary stops signing (or dies) when the air is no longer safe for workers to breathe. Instead of preventing burnout, physician wellness is focused on strengthening the canary, but the healers will not be healed until we shift our attention to the coalmine. […]

The canary lives in the coalmine as a harbinger of toxicity. The canary stops signing (or dies) when the air is no longer safe for workers to breathe. Instead of preventing burnout, physician wellness is focused on strengthening the canary, but the healers will not be healed until we shift our attention to the coalmine.

The halo of shame shines on any doctor daring to call in sick or spend time healing. I felt that burden of shame when I decided to spend five days in the mountains of Montana attempting to pause, reflect, and focus on being a better healer.

I allowed myself to shift during this retreat from work and life.  This included new perspective on wellness, work-life integration, letting go, and building a healthier work culture for myself and my medical group. These things are not just for the mindfulness crowd, they’re for doctors too..

The problem with not spending time refocusing and reframing is that we aren’t the best versions of ourselves. But where can we find those better versions? Not in meditation rooms and on yoga mats or even through mindfulness (the popular cure all for the corporate crowd).

How do we bring those reflective versions of ourselves back to the hospital, to our patients, to our family lives?

Some Things Need to Change

To mend and recharge and heal, the work has to be embedded. Here are some ways that this can happen:

  • Better support in patient care, in clinics and in the operating room
  • Real-life connections in doctor’s lounges and lunchrooms
  • Recognizing value of and limitations of online friendships
  • Support circles and communities in real life
  • Regulated and healthy work hours
  • A strong family or outside life in addition to work
  • Rest and relaxation

The pendulum has swung.  As doctors we can go through our days disrespected by patients and healthcare team members and page operators and the media and the government.  The longtime emotional injury that comes with a complication or a bad patient outcome may be the least of our scratches and scrapes.

HIstorically, we had one another to connect with, peers to bolster one another, and time to lick our wounds.  Today, healing the healer has to take on another dimension. It is more than about a shift in a yoga studio or a 5 day retreat.  These are ways to strengthen the canary. The canary will keep getting sick if we do not focus on the coalmine.

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    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

    - MARCUS AURELIUS

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