Welcome back to another episode of the Physician Career Transition Posse.
Today I’m excited to introduce to you another new amazing member, Dr. P, a physician and surgeon who has a heart-rendering and captivating story to share with you.
I’ll let him take it from here.
I have a heart for helping people. I also liked working with my hands and mind. Caring for people came naturally to me. My father was a pediatrician. It was not uncommon to discuss loose stools or pinworms over the dinner table. My dad was a dedicated physician. He worked six days a week for over 30 years, but it kept him away from his family. As a result, our family relationships suffered. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, my dad remarried a woman 20 years younger than him, and he became less and less reliable as far as being a father to his children or leader of our family. My mom fell apart mentally and never recovered. I grew up in a very broken family unit much like so many others. My dad always kept a picture of a kid in his wallet who thanked him for saving his life. Maybe in some fairytale kind of way, I had hoped that I would do the same. One of my dad’s friends from medical school was a general surgeon, and he allowed me to scrub into surgery with him during my college years. It was exciting and there was no doubt that if I was given the opportunity, there was nothing else I would rather do than be a surgeon and practice medicine.
My six-year surgical residency ended in 2006, and I started my first job in as a solo practitioner. I still remember my first check, and it was more money than I’ve ever known. I bought a house and a fast car. After years of training, I was now on my own. I focused on patients and was known to give quality and compassionate medical and surgical care to those in need. I was on top of the world and life was turning out well after years of difficult school and grueling training. I met the love of my life and we were married in 2007 and started a family later that same year. The hard work and dedication were paying off, but the things I disliked about my own father had now surfaced in me, and I made work my priority to the detriment of those that loved me most. I’ve always said that there is never a shortage of work as a doctor, always a need to fill. Work became my identity, and it was what gave me importance and security. I was paid a lot of money to do what I loved to do – take care of those in need.
Then life changed in an instant in 2008 when our one-year-old daughter died unexpectedly. The initial shock and veil of confusion gave way to unspeakable agony. I could not stop crying. How could this be? I was confused. I felt pain so great that I thought I was going to lose my mind and despaired of life itself. It was a horrific time for us. Before I knew what hit me, death had surrounded me, and I had nothing in my arsenal to combat it.
It wasn’t just that our only child was gone, but it felt like so much more was stolen. Our future hopes were dashed, laughter and joy were gone, and any amount of peace was quickly effaced by torrential waves of grief and flashbacks that did not let up for years. Death swung hard and hit me square and threatened to keep me down for the count.
I also felt cheated. Here I am giving my life to help others with their health, and death snuck in the back door and took my healthy daughter. It disrupted and challenged everything I knew. It was very clear that I was not immune to death and its catastrophic consequences.
Our perceived life of success and happiness was dashed. I had been suddenly forced into circumstances that I had not chosen and could never have imagined. A new chapter in my life was already beginning, and I was not prepared for the dark abyss that laid ahead.
Medical training taught me to keep going at all personal cost, never show weakness, and put the patient first.
I still had a practice to run and bills to pay, so back to work I went after only one week. Many of my memories of those early years after my daughter passed have vanished from my memory, much like most of my childhood. I remember being angry, lost, and hopeless because I thought my life would be like this forever. Hardness of heart, victim mentality, and hopelessness were my new companions. It was exhausting trying to be in control of everything. Work offered an escape from the reality of my own pain and forced me to focus on something other than myself in my own thoughts. Prior to my daughter’s death, I was the life of the party and full of life; however, when she died, something in me died as well. I isolated myself from other people outside of work. Oddly enough, I was a fantastic doctor because I gave it my all when I was there. I was always available and ready to go to the hospital, ER, or OR in a moment’s notice. I prayed with many families, spoke at patient funerals, and held many hands in their time of need. Because I was still in the healing process, it was exhausting to care for the hurting.
I continued to give everything I had physically and mentally to my job. You would not know it from looking at the outside, but inside I often felt like the walking dead.
I had nothing in reserve to give to my loving wife who was also hurting deeply and felt alone in our marriage. For years, I worked, self-medicated with alcohol, and spent weekends in bed. My tears had no end. The overwhelming sadness and feelings of hopelessness became a pattern that would prove tough to break out of.
We had two boys (now ages 10 and 7). The threat of death never seemed too far away over the next 10 years. Both boys had febrile seizures where they stopped breathing, turned blue, and appeared to have died in our arms. They lived, and I thank God. They are amazing little dudes. But the PTSD panic button got hit again and again. Any progress or healing that may have occurred was now replaced with returning thoughts of death, instability, fear, loss, anger, and terror in our souls. I also had gallbladder surgery, and the general surgeon, who was a friend of mine, told me that I had “complex anatomy”. Doctor code for something bad almost happened. To top it off, our house got a direct hit by a tornado causing a 120-year-old oak tree to come crashing through our roof about 4 feet from us all. I promise I’m not making this stuff up!
I was determined to not let anything stop me from what I thought was my purpose and identity, being a doctor.
I most recently worked as an employed physician for a large and publicly traded healthcare company. I was working 70 hours per week at a trauma center, saw 30 patients per day, and took call every third night and weekend. It was busy and the patients were sick. We had no ancillary help and was called back to the hospital most days while on call. Despite a 98% patient satisfaction rate, administration continued to push us to see more patients and do more cases. I did almost 1000 OR surgical cases in the previous 2 years and couldn’t believe that they wanted me to give more. Something I did not have. I was exhausted. They also were forcing us to start a satellite clinic 30 miles away. Hospital administration was also forcing in-coming emergency transfers which were not appropriate. Due to a poorly run OR, add on cases would not get started until 10 PM or later. It was a perfect storm.
I quit drinking heavily 7 years ago and was trying my best to keep stress low through exercise, eating right, and meditation. It wasn’t enough. The cost of being a doctor in my current situation was simply too much, and I put in my 90 days notice. This prompted many calls and discussions from local and corporate branches of their healthcare system. They wanted to hear my concerns but they could not fix the broken system.
I was fortunate to find Heather Fork, my new physician coach.
I had to keep my eye on the 90- day finish line as I was determined to finish on a good note with honor and integrity. It was a challenge due to being extremely frustrated with it all. I am thankful for those early morning walks with my wife during this time.
December 15th, 2019 was my last day of work. I limped to the finish line. It was clear that I had left the desert, but the desert had not left me.
It took some time to sort through everything and it still does take time. I did some traveling out of the country and went to a medical mission conference in Houston and a high school baseball alumni game in Dallas. Those early months caused a heavy shift in my identity. Lots of fear and insecurities surfaced as the dust began to settle. My day-to-day was centered on me and my family for the first time in my life, which was an adjustment. I needed structure and began working out, eating right, journaling, reflecting on the past, and continued meditation exercises centered on restoration. It probably took about 3 months off work to feel somewhat energized, recharged, and better able to relax enough to feel comfortable with where I was in life. Medicine is all I have known my entire life. I was finally free from a job that was killing me.
My priorities needed rebalancing and my soul needed to be refreshed.
I now understand that while working, I am hyper-focused on work to such a great degree that I am often unable to relax when not working. It makes me a great doctor; however, it steals from other parts of my life and from those that need me most, my family. I now know that busyness and exhaustion can sabotage healing.
I have been off work for about 4 months (including through the Coronavirus outbreak). This time off has proven invaluable to me. It has quickened necessary healing. It has allowed for deep reflection of the past, present, and future, and wringing out those remaining tears. I’m at peace with losing my daughter; I’m at peace with a faulty childhood; I’m almost at peace with death which waged war in my life over the last decade or so; I’m at peace with not being a doctor right now.
What has sprung forth is a newly discovered vitality and gratitude for life that I could not appreciate while focused on patient care. I am thankful to have survived countless situations that threatened to overtake me. I am thankful for my wife who loved me through many dark years. My soul has been stretched through loss. As a result, I am a changed person. As of now, I do not know for certain what the future will look like. There are so many options. I am focused on being present each day to be a better father, husband, and friend. Every day that I have air in my lungs is a gift.
At the time of this post, Dr. P is still considering many career options including part-time locum tenens work. We’ll definitely check in with him in the near future and keep you posted!
A big Thank you to Dr. P for his most honest and beautifully written piece about his journey to date.