As a physician, finding time for a personal life outside of the daily pressures of a medical practice can be daunting.
Working to improve patients’ health while meeting government and payer regulations, keeping an eye on practice finances and managing a staff often leaves today’s doctors with little extra time or energy. Fortunately, many physicians do find ways to have a fulfilling life both inside and outside of their practice.
For this year’s Physician Writing Contest, Medical Economics asked readers how they achieve a satisfying work-life balance. The result is a series of personal and professional anecdotes on how being a physician doesn’t mean sacrificing other interests outside of practice. Physician authors shared their own approaches and provided peer advice knowing that there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits all solution to maintaining balance.
In this issue, we present our contest winners for 2017, selected by our editorial team and physician advisers. In future issues, we’ll present honorable mention submissions offering additional tips and insight from physicians to physicians.
By Sigrid Johnson, MD
When I was a child, the oldest of three children, Wednesdays were always a mystery. That was the day my parents had to themselves—either in their room, or on walks or other adventures children could only imagine for them. My mother was a registered nurse, and my father was a social worker—in the 1960s, they brought home $4,800 per year between the two of them.
Still, every Wednesday, they both took off from work, and from family, and enjoyed each other. They did that their whole married life. I grew up thinking that it was normal to have a mid-week vacation every week in a marriage.
When I walked across the stage to receive my medical degree, I was six months pregnant. My three children came at the most stressful times during my budding career—my intern year, my third year as a resident and my first year in private practice as a rural family physician. Still, at least once a week, my husband and I escaped together. We could usually be found hiking, camping or horse riding.
Private practice gifted me back the Wednesdays I remembered from my youth. I started taking off every Wednesday. In earlier years I raised my children on a farm, and those days were filled with making jam and cookies in the kitchen, and playing with the horses and chickens. We would get baby chicks from the co-op every spring, and teach the children how to raise them. Our free range chickens laid about a dozen eggs a day—giving us the equivalent of an Easter egg hunt every day!
Work was busy to be sure. I had a busy solo rural family practice that included high-risk and operative obstetrics. Fortunately, I had the best patients a physician could possibly find—they knew I was a young mother with other interests and never called me for frivolous things.
Usually patients who came up the driveway had issues like the neighbor with atrial fibrillation with a heart rate over 200 who I had to put in my car and drive to the hospital. Or the time a patient couldn’t get a wood stake out of his Labrador dog’s leg and I opened the office on a Saturday to remove it and staple the leg back together. Or the Christmas I missed opening stockings with the children to deliver a baby—to their frustration.
To help with the increased demands of the practice while guarding my Wednesday time off, I hired more staff—a nurse practitioner and another nurse. As the paperwork demands grew, I also hired a medical records clerk and got a lab tech.
As my children grew, and our interests changed, our Wednesdays started to fill with music and dance. I took up ballroom dancing, and even participated in our local “Dancing with the Stars” competition. I also had my time diverted to school sports—following my children through the south with their soccer games, lacrosse, choirs, musicals, horse shows, violin concerts and more.
I started to become possessive of more than my Wednesdays—I wanted some of the weekends as well. Sunday had always been family time: church and family dinners and time to practice musical instruments. Now it was also time to get away and travel, sometimes with children, and sometimes without. I started attending conferences in exotic locales—South Africa, Mexico, Florida, Canada.
Traveling was wonderful— opening my eyes to how medicine worked in other cultures. It refreshed my outlook and helped show my daughters it was possible to have fun while working hard.
Now, it is my first quiet year in a long time. My children have all gone to college. The days remain busy at work, and still challenging and often frustrating, but the evenings have become very long. The first week I was an empty-nester I looked around the house and asked, “What now?”
A colleague of mine once told me a practice is like a jealous lover: if you give it a Saturday, it will take it—and Sunday and nights and holidays. It will take, take, take, but never give back the time it takes from you. I knew I could fill my empty hours with more clinic time—just call my staff and have them book me up! They could even take my Wednesdays! Then I wouldn’t miss my children as much.
But slowly, I realized that this was not the answer. Yes, there were always notes to do, papers to push, problems to solve at work. But that was not going to make me happy—just busier. It might earn me more money, but I wouldn’t have time to spend it. I had to diversify again.
I decided to buy a sailboat and learn how to sail. More than that, I decided I wanted to work toward getting my captain’s license. I started to sail on Wednesdays and also some on the weekends. I also called my dance instructor and asked if we could resume lessons. And I decided this was a good year to focus on my long-neglected piano skills again.
I found a good instructor who could help me put some polish on pieces I had learned long ago—Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, pieces I could really put some feeling into on days when healthcare issues became too much or when I missed my children an extra bunch.
I found that through this particular journey this year, I developed a bounce in my step I had started to lose at work—paperwork and regulatory challenges no longer were poised to beat me down. The focus and strength it took to handle my sailboat in strong wind tempered me and became tools I could use in my work.
The piano became my Valium—playing an hour after work peeled away the mounting frustrations of the day. And my Wednesdays remained my sanctuary and continue to be a source of comfort and nourishment.
Not everyone likes sailing or playing the piano. But every patient who comes into my office with concerns about stress in their lives gets a handwritten prescription from me that suggests they take an hour a day alone to recharge their batteries and a date night or play day once a week to find their joy again. I find mine on Wednesdays.