We All Need a Compass

I was delighted to be asked to be the AOA visiting professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine this week.  The following is the speech I gave at the induction banquet.  For those who are not in medicine, Alpha Omega Alpha is the “Phi Beta Kappa” of medical school, an honor society that recognizes students who are at the top of their class… but who have also demonstrated service, leadership and professionalism. 

 

What an honor that I have been asked to be here tonight for this celebration!  I am in the company of superstars and great friends, both new and old … what could be better?

I want to start by congratulating the junior AOA, resident and faculty inductees.  For the junior AOA inductees, you are clearly on a strong path to excellence which will serve you well.  Although I’m going to address my remarks to the graduating seniors, please know that I haven’t forgotten you or what it took for you to be here tonight.  For the resident and faculty inductees, you have been singled out for this very particular honor because you are amazing clinicians, educators and role models.  Thank you for what you do.

I thought I’d start with a short description of what it means to be inducted into AOA from the AOA website.

“Election to Alpha Omega Alpha is an honor signifying a lasting commitment to scholarship, leadership, professionalism, and service. A lifelong honor, membership in the society confers recognition for a physician’s dedication to the profession and art of healing.”

Induction into AOA is a major milestone in your career and, based on your predecessors in the organization, it also represents the beginning of a remarkable journey.  It’s a journey that you won’t take alone.  If history is a guide, you represent the future leaders of medicine, which means you’ll be guiding others on this journey as well.

That’s the reason I decided I should talk about how to use a compass.

 

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I suspect that you have all used a compass before but, like me, you probably haven’t given it much thought.  A traditional compass works by aligning a needle to the magnetic pulls of the north and south poles.  Although we really could use either north or south as a reference point, by convention we use north. I’m not going to get into the differences between true north and magnetic north*… suffice it to say that because a compass lets us know where north is, we can calculate the difference between “true north” and where we are heading, which in nautical terms, is called our “absolute bearing”.

So where am I going with this?  Why is it important to have a point of reference, a “true north”, as you start your journey through residency into the practice of medicine?

I know you’ve already been on services where the focus seemed to be more on checking the boxes on the scut list than on caring for the patients… and you had the feeling that there was something missing.

That’s why you need a “true north”.

You’ve also been on committees or in organizations that seemed to worry more about policies and procedures than how to use those policies and procedures for the better good.

That’s why you need a “true north.”

And I know that you have experienced days where you manifested one or more of the three cardinal symptoms of burnout, days when you lost enthusiasm for your work, felt that patients were objects rather than people and/or decided everyone around you could do a better job than you could.

That’s why you need a “true north”.

Unless you know where your “true north” is, you can’t navigate… you can’t make the adjustments that keep you on course.

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The single most important piece of advice I can give you as you start on this journey is to make sure you know where “true north” is for you.  As each of you define your own personal “true north”, you will share things in common.  For example, loving your family and friends, being kind, and trying to make a difference.  But even though there will be common themes, “true north” will be a little different for each of you.  This is not as abstract a concept as you might think. It is not only possible to articulate your goals, what gives you meaning and how you define your own integrity, it’s important to do so. And, yes, I mean write them down, think about them, and revise them when necessary.  When you hit the inevitable days of stormy weather, having a compass that it true is critically important.

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In reading about compasses, I also learned that the traditional compass has to be held level to work.  I learned that “when the compass is held level, the needle turns until, after a few seconds to allow oscillation to die out, it settles into its equilibrium orientation.”

What a great image.  You have to be still to let the compass equilibrate.  You have to be mindful to look at the needle to calculate your absolute bearing.  And then you have to take that information and apply it to correct your course.  And to do so, you have to hold the compass level, which I think is a great metaphor for taking care of yourself – physically, emotionally and spiritually.

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There is not a lot in the day to day life of an intern, resident or practicing physician that teaches us the skill of focusing on that still point, on getting our bearings to make sure we don’t veer off course.

It’s not a trivial problem.  Veering off course can result in doing something we don’t want to do or, more importantly, becoming someone we don’t want to be.  More importantly for those of you just starting on this journey, a small error in navigation at the beginning of a journey results in a very large error when you arrive.  That’s why, as you start this journey, it’s so important to know what “true north” is for you.

As you articulate what your “true north” is, I would also urge you to translate it into something that is easy to remember for those times that you are making a decision in a difficult moment.   For me, my “true north” as a physician has been distilled into three rules that I try to follow and that I teach my trainees.

Rule 1:  Do what’s right for the patient.

Rule 2:  Look cool doing it.

Rule 3:  Don’t hurt anything that has a name.

Let me expand just a little…

Rule 1 means always do what’s right for the patient.  Even if you are tired, even if others disagree, even if you don’t get paid, even if it’s not technically “your” patient – do what’s right.  It also means developing an life-long method to deliberately read and study so you know the right thing to do.  And it means doing all of this with compassion and integrity.

Rule 2, “Look cool doing it”, means practicing your art until you look cool.  If you are surgeon, make sure your movements look like Tai Chi and that you have no wasted motion.  If you are a pathologist, learn all the variations on the themes that cells can create. No matter what your specialty, read about each of your patients, prepare for all cases, procedures and conferences deliberately and diligently. “Look cool doing it” also means don’t lose your cool.  Be professional, which at its core is just another way of saying kindness and integrity matter.

Rule 3, “Don’t hurt anything that has a name”, certainly means don’t cut the ureter if you are doing a colectomy, but it means more than that because…

You have a name.

Your significant other has a name.

Your institution, your friends, your family all have names.

You are about to embark on the amazing and challenging journey of residency… I know you have a sense of trepidation and also a sense of incredible excitement.  Everyone in this room who has been there remembers and, to be honest, is probably a little jealous. What an amazing time to start a career in medicine.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished so far. I wish you smooth sailing and a compass that is true.

 

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*Because I am using “true north” as a metaphor, the scientists will have to forgive me.  There is a difference between “true north”, which is the actual north pole and “magnetic north” which is what a compass shows.  Here’s a great link that explains this further:  Magnetic North vs Geographic (True) North Pole

 

 

 

Sometimes it hurts…

A few years after I started as an attending in pediatric surgery, I was called to see a little girl who had been with her father at a construction site. For whatever reason, a wall under construction had fallen and she was caught under it. Her injuries were severe, with massive blood loss from a crushed liver. We opened her chest, packed the liver, transfused her massively but to no avail…

I vividly remember what happened next. Instead of the usual quiet moment of reflection, the team started talking about our week, carrying on a conversation as though this was just one more event in a busy day. It hit me how unusual this was as I was driving home. It was the middle of the night and, as I drove into my neighborhood, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling anything, that the sadness and other emotions I usually felt when I lost a patient weren’t there.

A cat darted in front of my car. I got out of the car, looked at the cat and burst into sobs… which continued for a good 30-40 minutes.

The loss of a patient, the loss of a pet, or even the loss of a dream related to your career leads to grief. Granted, the depth of grief may be, and should be, less than the loss of a family member, but it is grief nonetheless.   Because these losses are often viewed as “less serious”, people may feel that it’s somehow “not normal” to feel true grief when they occur. This is particularly true for physicians, who often have to suppress these feelings to be able to treat the next patient.

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Here’s the single most important message…It’s ok to feel the loss.

The ability to cry over a tragic injury or loss of a patient is the sign of a compassionate physician or provider, not a sign of weakness.   For all of us who experience these losses, It is important to allow ourselves to grieve, if that is what we are feeling. Although this will mean different things for different people, here are a few ways that might help…

Share your thoughts with someone you trust. Talk to your friends and, in particular, senior colleagues.   It is important for your future patients that you are allowed the space to grieve. It is also normal to worry about returning to work if you’ve experienced a particularly traumatic loss.  If you have a colleague who has lost a patient, let them know in direct or indirect ways that you are there for them if they need to talk.

If you are the team leader, talk to your team. It’s important to debrief with your team (and anyone else who was there) immediately afterwards and a few days later.   Make sure you acknowledge how hard this is and ask if people are ok. Remember for many of your learners, this may be their first time to experience the loss of a patient… how you respond will be remembered as their example for the future.

“Good models teach us to handle the experiences that change us.” Thomas J. Krizek.

 Communicate with the family. Immediately afterwards, just be with them. It is human nature to avoid “bothering them” in their time of grief but try to go. Bearing witness to their grief by sitting silently with them is a powerful way to help. Write a condolence letter. Call, email or write a note 3-6 months later to let them know you are thinking of them and to ask if they have any lingering questions. Offer to meet with them if they would like.

Go to the visitation and/or the funeral. Even after a hard journey together, even if you question if you could have done something different, go to the funeral if it feels like you should. Not just for the family, who will be very appreciative – but for you. There is closure in ceremony for everyone.

Take care of yourself. Focus on self-care by being with family and friends, eating good food, exercising, sleeping and doing the things you love.   It is both the burden and privilege of our profession that we experience these moments of intense and tender transitions…. but sometimes it hurts.

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What we can learn from pain…

The following was sent to me after I reached out to a dear friend who had suffered rib fractures (and more) in a fall.  I was so touched by his perspective and the potential power of these words to heal  that I asked permission to post it here.

I’ll say the week started last Thursday, when I sucked it up and scheduled a host of delayed medical procedures, got blood drawn for an array of things, and planned a weekend of work plus my first attempt at cycling since surgery over two years ago – on the place the bike seat hits. I dislike medical tests because I hate to not make great scores on tests, and unlike other tests, it is hard to study for a cancer marker test or blood pressure test. But it was past time.

By Saturday, the weather was Springlike, and all I had to do before climbing on a bike was some roof leak patching. See earlier missives on Facebook about how THAT went. By Sunday I was pushing a morphine pump (almost without effect) wondering just how crushing my skeleton into pieces was going to be the big breakthrough I knew was spiritually on the way to this week. But not doubting the breakthrough at all.

I was too messed up to use even a cellphone, but the outpouring of love, compassion, caring, helpfulness, prayer, gratitude, and ICU humor was so huge I could feel it even through the opioid mist and, I am told, Olympic class pain. It continues even today.

Did you know that gratitude is one of most biologically and spiritually powerful “drugs” ever tested? It measurably switches genes on and off, by the thousands, but always in a good way. Well my gratitude graph is off the chart this week, starting with so many close friends and family. I have reconnected with several long loved dear souls, and connected with several new dear souls. If I had gotten on the bike, death or paralysis were likely outcomes, due to medication issues. If I hadn’t been in ICU, several hidden medical issues would not have been detected.

My beloved wife has almost slipped up a couple of times this week and let her secret wings show. I believe the modern definition of marriage encompasses humans marrying Angels, so I can still call her “wife”.

Then we get to medical tests. Cancer markers – none, again. Extensive CT scans necessitated by my air cargo disaster – no sign of cancer etc. Vertebrae, spinal or brain damage, or chances of dying of testicular cancer? Approaching insignificant. Crickey, my body acted like a crumple zone protected Volvo. Major systems were cushioned by minor (numerous and very painful) fractures.

Medical issues? Of course. But the extensive testing and freak accident have revealed reversible issues, including ones caused by my medications, which would not have been detected in the ordinary course of things. Issues that might have been lethal if I hadn’t gone to ICU and smart people put the puzzle together.

Closer than ever to my wife. Reconnecting with dear friends of all ages. Making new friends. Confirming that my former cancer is truly leaving the building. Re-prioritizing work, play, health, etc. And remembering that the only shortages of Love in this Universe are from people kinking the hoses. We could never use the actual, Infinite, supply. As I write this, I prepare to go hang with beautiful souls tomorrow and share some healing. Pain is just the contrast needed to highlight the transcendent, joyous, beautiful, loving ride we call Life. Since I really should be dead or paralyzed right now, every breathtaking twinge is a reminder to be grateful. Easy peasy.

I had to postpone an appointment with an old, wise, preacher I have known since childhood. I was talking to him on the phone about the combination of joy, gratitude, pleasure, humor and serious pain, and he said he would quote one of his old buddies who is used to suffering. He says”Hallelujah anyway”. I hurt myself laughing at that one, so, just “Hallelujah ya’ll!” Sums it up for me.

Peace, Love, Joy.

They are choices.

Ouch, anyway.😘

New Year Resolutions

The “clean slate” of a new year almost always leads us to think of resolutions … things we could change to make our lives better.  This is a great time for reflection to realize what you have accomplished, where you’d like to be in a year, and what changes you need to arrive at that goal.  I just finished reading Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick by Jeremy Dean which provided some useful ideas about making resolutions.

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Know why you want to make the change

“There has to be an ultimate goal that is really worth achieving or the habit will be almost impossible to ingrain.”  Jeremy Dean

Let’s take one example – losing weight.  It’s fine to say you want to lose weight… but why?  Wanting to fit into your clothes is not a trivial reason, but will it really motivate you when it gets tough as much as these?

  • Being able to “walk the walk” when you talk to patients about losing weight
  • Reduction in your risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a variety of other health problems
  • More energy, better mood, less pain…

What’s important is that you find reasons that resonate for you.  Do a little research and write down why you want to make the change.  Plan to review this, and revise it when needed, on a regular basis.

 

Make the resolution then make a plan.

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To continue the losing weight example, what are the specific new habits you want to develop?  Are they “SMART” changes?   (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Based).  For example…

  • I will eat 8 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • I will set the alarm clock 15 minutes early to do push-ups, crunches and squats before I go to the hospital.
  • I will plan my meals and shop once a week so I can take healthy food with me to work.
  • I will schedule my workouts every weekend so I can attend at least two spin classes a week.
  • I will cook one healthy dish on the weekend that I can eat for at least 4 meals during the week

 

Develop the “what if” plan.

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The next step is to imagine all the things that might derail you and write down a specific plan for each of them.  This will be an ongoing process… as you come up with new excuses to not follow through with your new habit, add it to the list.

Back to the example of losing weight….

  • If I forget to bring fruit/veggies with me to work, I will go to the cafeteria or lounge to get at least 2 servings to eat at work.
  • If I walk by MacDonald’s and feel drawn in by the smell of the fries, I will remember that I’m trying to set a good example for my patients
  • If I hit snooze on my alarm clock, I will move it across the room.
  • If I think I’m too tired to go shopping for the week, I will remember that this is the key to having healthy food at work.

“Making healthy habits should be a voyage of discovery.” Jeremy Dean

 

Keep track.

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Self-monitoring is critically important to maintaining a new habit.   It doesn’t matter if you use an app like My Fitness Pal, a calendar, a spreadsheet or a system like the Bullet Journal… stay accountable by keeping track.

 

As the habit becomes engrained, change it a little to keep it interesting.

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Working out with exactly the same routine quickly becomes boring. It’s one of the reasons people love group classes like spin classes  – the instructors are always changing the routine.  Be mindful and creative… but stay out of ruts!

“Making or breaking a habit is really just the start. To develop a truly fulfilling and satisfying happy habit, it’s about more than just repetition and maintenance; it’s about finding ways to continually adjust and tweak habits to keep them new; to avoid mind wandering and the less pleasurable emotional states that accompany it. There is great enjoyment to be had in these small changes to routines. When life is the same every day, it gets boring.”  Jeremy Deans

 

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Looking for inspiration?  Here’s a list of New Year’s Resolutions for medical students, residents and busy docs.  Pick 1 or 2 and start working on your plan, your what-ifs and how you will monitor them!

  1. Learn to meditate and spend at least 10 minutes every day meditating with HeadSpace. (Here’s the TED talk that introduced me to this great app.)
  2. Eat fruits and veggies with every meal.
  3. Walk 10,000 steps per day.
  4. Take the stairs instead of the elevators.
  5. Learn the names of all the people you work with… the guy who mops the floor, the clerk at the desk, the person who works in the blood bank.
  6. Write down three things you are grateful for every night before you go to bed.
  7. Log all cases (if this applies to you) the same day and finish medical records within 24 hours.
  8. Use a system like the Bullet Journal or Remember The Milk to become more organized and never miss a deadline (including the birthdays of your family and friends)
  9. Cook your own meals at home (take a class if you need to).
  10. Be on time to conferences, rounding, meetings, classes, etc.
  11. Spend at least half a day a week “unplugged” and use it to play.
  12. Keep a journal to remember the important events of the day, vent about things that upset you, and make plans for the future.
  13. Read something that is not medical every day.
  14. Stop eating fast food.
  15. Drink less alcohol or stop all together.
  16. Get at least 7 hours of sleep any night you are not on call. (and have a plan post call to sleep more)
  17. Cut out all added sugar.
  18. Drink more water.
  19. Keep your house neater… or at least a part of your house!
  20. Stop texting while driving.
  21. Learn about motivational interviewing to help your patients.
  22. Read a major textbook in your field in one year.
  23. Learn something new from every patient you see
  24. Try a new way to exercise every month
  25. Set your intention for the day every morning.
  26. Eat breakfast every morning.
  27. Set limits on checking email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites.
  28. Practice mindfulness.
  29. Plan your meals for the week on the weekend to make sure you have great food on call and at work.
  30. If you have to sit a lot at work, come up with a plan to not be so sedentary.

 

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Getting Organized:  The Bullet Journal

I’m a huge fan of using technology to organize my “to-do” list.  I’ve used (and loved)  Remember the Milk and Evernote as the backbone of my system.  But I recently discovered a simple, non-tech method which is proving to be the most effective tool I’ve used.

The Bullet List was designed by Ryder Carroll, who is a digital product designer.  The system is elegant, simple and requires only a blank notebook to get started.  (Although I adapted the system to use in Evernote to make it at least somewhat digital … and to avoid the inevitable crisis for an absent-minded person of losing the notebook!).

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The Bullet Journal is based on these five “sections” of the journal:

  • The Index – to know where things are in your notebook
  • Future log – to list big events for future months (ex: Plans for interviews for residency/job, rotation schedules, reading plan
  • Monthly log – a combination of tasks and events for the month (ex: reading plan to prepare for residency inservice exams)
  • Daily log – tasks, events, and notes for the day
  • Collections – list of things, for example books to read, track a goal (like exercise or sleep), technical points as you learn a procedure, or a gratitude log

Here’s the overview video from the site bulletjournal.com, which in 4 minutes explains the how to use a Bullet Journal.

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In addition to making sure you don’t miss important deadlines and events, the Bullet Journal also serves as an actual journal to help you remember important events.  For example, one of my entries last year was…  “Took residents to watch patient take first sip after Heller myotomy.  Everyone cried.”  Don’t underestimate the healing power of journaling during medical school, residency or after your training.  Recording these small moments will help, but using them as prompts for writing the story of your day can be even more powerful.

p.s. If you are in anyway an artist a) I’m jealous and b) have fun!

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Making a Bullet Journal Work in Residency from The Deliberate Doctor

Visual Bullet Journal from dxmedstudent.tumblr.com

How to Bullet Journal from thelazygeniuscollective.com

 

 

 

Last Minute Holiday Presents for Medical Students, Residents and Busy Docs

It’s the holiday season in a very short time, so I thought I’d put together a list of last minute presents!  These are presents that would work for anyone, but are particularly suited for medical students, residents and busy physicians.

A really good water bottle

None of us drink enough water at work …. having a water bottle does help!  There are many out there but make sure the one you choose doesn’t have BPA in it.  Glass and steel bottles are probably the safest, but BPA free plastic bottles are fine, too.   As an added bonus, you can put something in the bottle before you wrap it… chocolates or another favorite candy, gift cards to Starbucks, etc.

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Photo credit and link to a site listing “best” water bottles

 

Pandora One

Listening to music you like without commercials is a great gift for listening while studying, in the clinic or in team rooms.  Pandora can be played on any computer but also has apps for mobile devices.  There are other sites, too, but this one is my personal favorite.

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Here’s where to go for a gift certificate.

 

iPad

I am a total fan of my new iPad Pro, which has taken over as my computer on a lot of days.  Because of it’s amazing power, there are medical apps, like this anatomy app that won’t run on other iPads.  But the iPad mini may be a better choice for students and residents …. mostly because it fits in the pocket of a white coat.  Make sure you get a cellular network plan with the wireless option, if this is the gift you choose.

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Link to information on the iPad mini

Anatomy Coloring Book

This is a great combination of the proven stress relief of adult coloring books and learning anatomy.  (or reviewing it, even for docs in practice) Don’t forget to order the pencils, too!

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Link to order

 

Electric Pressure Cooker

Pressure cookers in general are an amazing kitchen tool… but the modern electric pressure cooker is also a rice cooker, slow cooker, steamer which makes it the single best kitchen appliance for students and residents.

pressure-cooker  Link to order

 

Prepped meals (ready to cook)

If they like to cook, but don’t have the time to find the healthy recipes and prep the meal, this is a great idea.  Check out Green Chef, Blue Apron, and Hello Fresh as examples.  You might want to search locally to see if there others close to you.

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A gift card to get them started with Stitch Fix

Stitch Fix is perfect for both men and women that either a) hate to shop for clothes or b) love to shop for clothes but don’t have time.  It’s a service many of my friends use and love, so I can personally recommend it.  After you sign up, they send 5 items a month (or at whatever cadence you want).  You send back the ones you don’t want and get billed for the ones you keep.

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A membership to a local museum

If there are museums in the area that correspond to an interest this could be a great gift. Museums like the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, etc. are a great way to enjoy time off. Include a note that says you are giving this to them as a break from their studying or work!

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Best wishes for a joyous holiday season, peace in your lives and on earth and a New Year filled with health, happiness and joy!

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Advice physicians should follow. But don’t.

This is a truly wonderful piece from Emily Gibson, re-posted here with her permission from her beautiful blog, Barnstorming.  Enjoy!

octevening298As we drown in the overwhelm of modern day health care duties, most physicians I know, including myself, fail to follow their own advice. Far too many of us have become overly tired, irritable and resentful about our workload.  It is difficult to look forward to the dawn of the next work day.

Medical journals and blogs label this as “physician burnout” but the reality is very few of us are so fried we want to abandon practicing medicine. Instead, we are weary of being distracted by irrelevant busy work from what we spent long years training to do: helping people get well, stay well and be well, and when the time comes, die well.

Instead, we are busy documenting-documenting-documenting for the benefit of insurance companies and to satisfy state and federal government regulations. Very little of this has anything to do with the well-being of the patient and only serves to lengthen our work days — interminably.

Today I decided to take a rare mid-week day off at home to consider the advice we physicians all know but don’t always allow ourselves to follow:

Sleep. Plenty. Weekend and days-off naps are not only permitted but required. It’s one thing you can’t delegate someone else to do for you. It’s restorative, and it’s necessary.

Don’t skip meals because you are too busy to chew. Ever. Especially if there is family involved.

Drink water throughout the work day.

Go to the bathroom when it is time to go and not four or even eight hours later.

Nurture the people (and other breathing beings) who love and care for you because you will need them when things get rough.

Exercise whenever possible. Take the stairs. Park on the far side of the lot. Dance on the way to the next exam room.

Believe in something more infinite than you are as you are absolutely finite and need to remember your limits.

Weep if you need to, even in front of others. Holding it in hurts more.

Time off is sacred. When not on call, don’t take calls except from family and friends. No exceptions.

Learn how to say no gracefully and gratefully — try “not now but maybe sometime in the future and thanks for thinking of me.”

Celebrate being unscheduled and unplanned when not scheduled and planned.

Get away. Far away. Whenever possible. The backyard counts.

Connect regularly with people and activities that have absolutely nothing to do with medicine and health care.

Cherish co-workers, mentors, coaches and teachers that can help you grow and refine your profession and your person.

Start your work day on time. End your work day a little before you think you ought to.

Smile at people who are not expecting it, especially your co-workers. Smile at people who you don’t think warrant it. If you can’t get your lips to smile, smile with your eyes.

Take a day off from caring for others to care for yourself.  Even a hug from yourself counts as a hug.

Practice gratitude daily. Doctoring is the best work there is anywhere and be blessed by it even on the days you prefer to forget.