I am lucky to have a very wise companion who guides me beyond my myopia. After reading my last entry she said, “your next one needs to be about how to regain your compassion.” In essence, she was saying, “You’re a doctor. You can be tired and disappointed, but you can’t lose your compassion.” So here are some of my thoughts on how to move forward, and hopefully maintain, or regain, compassion lost.
Pause from time to time and remember why. Carter Lebares, one of our former residents now faculty at UCSF, has been helping surgeons fit mindfulness in their daily reality and promotes brief pauses during the day for such reflection. She acknowledges that the surgical quotidian doesn’t permit lengthy sessions but has shown that even brief mindfulness moments can help.
Remember gratitude. A man I respect often counseled to have an “attitude of gratitude.” We have opportunities and enjoy benefits that much of the world can’t even comprehend. Remembering and being grateful helps keep where we are in context. I have friends who keep gratitude journals and list the good things that happened during the day. One of our former residents was famous for having a grateful disposition even on the worst days. After a particularly onerous trauma night when asked how it went, she would just laugh and suggest breakfast. Her attitude was powerfully infectious to anyone around her.
Leave the briefcase at work. Taking work home, especially if I know I’m not going to get to it, just increases my stress. Leaving it at work helps separate the boundaries. It also helps me with one of my personal goals, which is to “be more present” and less distracted.
Avoid too much news. This is especially true now as our computers just feed us more of what we view. It can amplify our fear, and equally nefarious compounds our confirmation biases. Surgery is scary enough to add more to the haunted house. I recently blocked a former peer from my social media streams because of the constant stream of negative and even erroneous postings. I realized that there was nothing helpful in knowing that person’s opinions and it was just adding to my stress.
Schedule and practice diversion, recreation, and entertainment. As I write this, I am watching one of our pediatric colleagues knit as she actively participates in a video conference. I can see the stress fly out of her fingers. We, as surgeons and scientists, have adapted, or perhaps maladapted, the skill of delaying gratification. I’ve heard too many stories of surgeons who retire only to find they have nothing to do. They’ve never done anything other than work…no hobbies, no interests, nothing. I’m not suggesting we become the stereotype of the doctor golfer, but it’s probably a good thing to have surgery-like passion for baking bread, cars, history, guitars, or whatever. Let us not be like my last Uber driver who started driving after he retired because he had nothing to do.
Serve others. Nothing gets you out of the morass of misery more than helping someone else which, takes us back to the beginning – remembering why we followed this path in the first place. I submit it was born out of a desire to help others.
However we do it, we need to regain or retain compassion.