Move out of your own way: How I overcame physician burnout
I had been wanting to do something else for quite some time when I was fired from my hospital-based employee job.
After over 30 years of practicing Anesthesiology, and at the age of 60, I found myself at a crossroads. The first thing I thought after “You’re Fired!” was “What else can I do?” “Maybe I should just retire?”
My physician burnout burst out of me all at once in the form of an explosion of emotion directed at the head of my department. It had bubbled inside of me for a few months.
I’d found the EMR difficult; the drug-dispensing machine difficult, and the administrators who dictated how I practiced difficult. I did not like my situation, however, I tried to get through it, day in and day out. All I wanted was to keep a low profile for the next 5 years until I could officially retire.
I was being asked to do more and more, yet no one seemed to value my expertise. No one seemed to listen to what I had to say. No one seemed to care about my concerns regarding patient care. I kept telling myself, “You can do this!” Well on that day, “You can do this” meant “You can speak out.” I did. And I was fired.
Life After Physician Burnout
Unsure of what to do next, I found another job. However, the job I chose was NOT in a hospital, but in an ambulatory surgical center. No nights. No weekends. No call. I was now in a more manageable work environment. “Putting patients to sleep” was my comfort zone. I could do it while sleeping (although I wouldn’t recommend it).
Indeed, there had been many nights on 24-hr OB call, where I felt I had placed an epidural while “sleep-walking”. There had been late nights on OR-call where I’d done an emergency intubation, started an IV in a difficult patient, and participated in a code with no fuss, no muss. Yes, I’m THAT good!
And yet, despite this comfort-zone mentality, I could no longer stay in a toxic hospital situation. It was just too much. There had been situations where I had been demeaned, debased, and defamed by others and I became mad as hell and could not take it anymore.
Doubts jumped into my head immediately. “What will others think of me?” and “I worked so hard to follow my dream. Was this a mistake?” My concern over finances, my concern over what would people think if I quit, my concern over changing career paths haunted me. My financial concerns were resolved for now. But the doubts didn’t quell my desire to do something else.
And then it happened. I woke up from a sound sleep with a crystal clear notion of my future. I was going to become a stand-up comic! In the crevices of my brain were memories. Memories of me being, dare I say…funny. Memories of patients laughing at my jokes; having colleagues laugh uncontrollably at some of my stories, and my children being quite impressed with their mom “the gas passer”! Ha Ha Ha!
I decided to pursue stand-up comedy, even as my inner voice told me, “Girl, what you be thinkin’? What if they don’t laugh? What if? What if? Is stand-up comedy even a career? At your age?”
It was hard to suppress the “what if” voices, so I let them speak, but I chose not to listen. I hired a career coach after she convinced me she’d work with me to turn this hobby into an income stream. Sometimes you just have to take the leap!
My leap was from “putting people to sleep” to “waking them up” through public speaking. My coach suggested that I join Toastmasters. My first thought was, “How is learning how to TOAST going to make me a better speaker?”
What is Toastmasters International – and Why I joined
I soon learned that Toastmasters’ International was an organization that helped fledgling speakers improve their speaking skills in a safe, non-confrontational environment. I was so scared to attend my first meeting. It was held on a Tuesday night at 7 pm. I sat in my car trying to talk myself out of it. I finally told my inner critic to SHUT UP, got out of my car, and went in. That decision changed my life!
I immediately felt welcomed. I shared my stress freely with strangers and felt accepted. It fueled my desire to move forward into the unknown and see where it took me. I felt free. The stress of a career that had evolved from a dream career to a day job eased over time. In addition to Toastmasters, I enrolled in acting classes at a local community college. I took voice lessons and I did some voice-over work. It was exhilarating.
My first open-mic was very scary. I had a comedy coach. I had written some jokes. And now it was time to test it. After a few glasses of wine on a Monday night in a restaurant/open mic bar, I stood on stage dressed in scrubs and a stethoscope. I did my 5-min set and I got laughs! It was exhilarating, almost orgasmic! People in the audience congratulated me.
The following week, I was in the operating room. A patient was wheeled in and I introduced myself.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Charity, your Anesthesiologist.”
The patient sat bolt upright on the stretcher.
“I know who you are,” he said.
I was worried that I had done something wrong to him or a family member in the past. We physicians ALWAYS worry about potential litigious situations.
He then said, “Were you at the comedy club the other night?”
I said, “Yes! I was.”
“So you’re a REAL doctor?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You were funny at the club, I hope you’ll come back.”
And with that, I gave him a dose of Propofol and off to sleep he went.
When he awoke, he sang my praises in the recovery room. I knew that I had made the right decision. I moved out of my own way and went after my new dream; my new passion. I no longer felt the stress of conforming to what “the system” had decided made a good physician. Now, I share my epiphany with others.
What YOU Can Learn from My Story
- There is life after physician burnout. And boy is it fun!
- You must be the change in your own life. Don’t allow your inner critic to hold you hostage.
- Make an escape plan and stop stopping YOU!
- If you need a coach – get one. Surround yourself with people who believe in you.