Doctor, when is your next vacation?
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Life is short. We always hear that phrase but really don’t know what it truly means. What I mean is that life doesn’t feel short; we complain of our days being too long, or weeks too busy and dragged out. The only thing that feels too short in my life are weekends. There comes a point in life where I think you figure out what it means, you look back and seeing your 20s flew by. Life is short, and we need to live it to the fullest.

When you’re a kid, a teen and even in your 20s, you feel like you have your whole life ahead of you. In the last year, I have seen some fellow physicians suddenly pass away; I have seen colleagues be diagnosed with different forms of cancer way too young, where arguably any age is too young. It brought me to the question: How can we as physicians do our jobs well and also have some time for ourselves? Sometimes it feels like taking care of ourselves makes us a bad doctor because we should always be available for our patients all the time.

When I first finished residency, a senior physician said to me, after I had mentioned about how excited I was about getting a good number of vacation weeks, “Well, you won’t use all of the vacation you know, because you should be aware that people will need to cover for you and your patients need you.”

This was very interesting to me: Is this how certain people view vacation time? At that time I couldn’t understand what they meant, but as I have completed my first year out of residency, I understand the view, at least to some degree. When you have your “own” patients especially in a clinic, there is a sense of guilt when you are considered vacation; it may not be heavy, but it definitely lingers around maybe convincing you to take a slightly shorter amount of time off than you planned.

What I am seeing around me at the hospital is that we are so often on the go, meeting to meeting, patient to patient, being pressured to do more, see more and get more RVUs, that it is easy to lose sight of one of the most precious things — the infamous “work-life balance.” If I took a poll, I would say probably one or two physicians around me feel like they have good work-life balance. It is like Bigfoot: Some people say they have seen it, but does it really exist?

I look around at a few of my colleagues who I had done residency with or who graduated ahead of me, and I see them drowning in work and responsibilities. I am afraid for them. It is so easy to keep working, and so hard to take a break and focus just on yourself even if it’s for a weekend where you don’t pick up extra shifts and just sleep into 9 a.m.

When I go on a vacation, the last two days are spent dreading how much paperwork will be waiting for me when I get back, or if something happened to any of my patients while I was away. I guess it’s the nature of the job, but by no means is it healthy. I have had people become upset with me for taking a few days off and traveling because I was not in clinic and not available. I understand where they come from; nobody wants to be without their doctor for any number of days especially if they need them. There is sometimes no winning; I often feel a bit guilt-ridden when I am off. With so much attention on physician burnout and wellness, I think it is important to really think about how important balance is in life.

I invite you to ask yourself: Do you have a good work-life balance?

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Author: Dr. Jasmine Toor (An internal medicine physician)
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