How to keep motivated as someone in healthcare – a fresh perspective

Classically, I have always been motivated by the desire to do well. All throughout my academic life, I have striven to achieve A and A* grades. Obtaining the results I wanted was always enough motivation for me to be studious and hard-working. Moreover, another important factor in keeping me driven was (friendly) competition from my peers. I vividly recall my elder brother’s advice before I started my GCSE years (year 9-11). He told me: ‘become friends with the smartest people in your class/year and then work hard to beat them!’ This was brilliant advice, I must admit, since we are the average of the five closest people around us. So as a side note: keeping good company is always crucial for self-development.

But now in medical school, although I have still been able to achieve consistent results in the top 10-15% of the year (ALL praise is for God), I felt my motivation being questioned. For some reason, these results started to feel quite empty and didn’t give me the joy or incentive as they had once done.

In my third year, my first result of the year (in October) was outside of this top 15% that I was normally getting. Previously, I had imagined that such a situation would cause me a massive amount of distress and anxiety but guess what? The world kept spinning and I actually breathed a relief of sigh and thanked God. I felt a huge pressure being lifted off my shoulders and I look back at this event as a significant turning point in my academic career.

This epiphany made me realise that striving for perfection is an admirable quest, but falling short of it is mere proof that we are only human. It may sound like I’m being melodramatic but that exam result demonstrated to me that, ultimately, it was not great results that motivated me and nor will they be the deciding factor in me becoming a good, competent doctor.

As you may recall in my previous blog, it was also around this time when I was battling burnout. My priorities started to change and I was more focused on becoming a well-rounded doctor.

So what do I use as a source of motivation now? Recently, I heard an amazing piece of advice; one that has changed the whole way I think and approach my learning and placements. We should not study incredibly hard, put the hours in and make sacrifices merely because we have exams at the end of each semester. Rather, we should do so because of the fact that the knowledge and skills we build now, as healthcare students, may ultimately be able to save someone’s life one day. Now, every time I am in class or in hospital, I bear this thought in mind and it focuses and encourages me to pay closer attention to the information in the books and the things I learn on the job.

The fact that we can directly impact somebody’s health is an amazing privilege that healthcare professionals have. There’s not many professions out there that have such a responsibility or opportunity. By regularly reminding ourselves of this fact, it ensures that we remain motivated to learn new information and practice new skills as they could be the difference between life and death for a future patient of ours.

Imagine, being the only doctor in the renal unit at 3am on a night-shift. You get bleeped to a patient who’s recent blood test has shown dangerously high potassium levels. This could soon stop their heart from beating. What will you do? It is precisely situations like this, which are not uncommon, that motivate me not to be lazy and skip important lectures, placements or learning opportunities. I want to be well-prepared for any life/death situations where the knowledge and skills I *should* have can come into use.

As students, we have the advantage of being able to learn and make mistakes in a relatively low-risk setting as we are constantly supervised and don’t make the ultimate decisions regarding a patient’s management. We should therefore make the most out of this to further our learning. Finally, loving the process and the journey itself is crucial to staying motivated. But I admit, (many) moments of procrastination and laziness still do creep in!

I’m interested to hear what keeps you motivated (whether you are in healthcare or not!). Any additional thoughts? Also, what would readers want me to write about next?

Until next time, thank you for reading and keep smiling! 🙂

 

 

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Medical School and Burnout

5:30am. My alarm goes off. Time to get out of bed, sip some water and sit at the desk in my bedroom. There’s still about three hours or so until lectures start but I’m up and wiping sleep away from my eyes and stifling my yawns.

Why am I up so early? To do some studying of course! This is the perfect opportunity to get ahead. My peers/competition are sleeping but I’m up getting the work done and putting in the hours. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” I tell myself.

This continued for weeks and then months. It resulted in me becoming super productive and organised. I started the year trailing behind the rest of my year fellows but ended the year ahead of everyone. I ensured I used the gaps between lectures/group work to go to the gym so that I was utilising my time as efficiently as possible. After a day of university sessions, I’d do more studying and aim to be in bed by 10pm. Somehow, I even managed to maintain a healthy diet and ended up with the lowest body fat percentage I’d ever had!

This all occurred in my second year of medical school. At the end of the year, I won an award for coming first. It felt great to see how happy my parents and siblings were.

Now it was time for 3rd year (the first of the clinical years) and I had the aim of continuing in the same way as 2nd year. I was waking up when it was still dark – two or three hours before I actually had to be in the hospital. I was learning about weird and wonderful conditions and answering practice questions.

Slowly, and without realising, my diet started to consist of frozen pizzas and doughnuts on a daily basis. I was starting to gain considerable weight. I also made excuses to skip gym sessions by blaming my ‘long’ hospital placements. I even became withdrawn from my close friends and started cancelling plans with them. 

And then one day it happened. I just crashed, tumbled and couldn’t get back up. I was COMPLETELY exhausted. I had stopped caring about the patients I was seeing, stopped caring about my studying and stopped caring about my diet and social life completely. I just wanted to stay in bed all day everyday and watch TV shows and films for 12hours+. 

What had led me to this painful destination known as “burnout”? On reflection, it was my poor coping mechanisms and lack of appreciation of a healthy work-life balance. Studies have shown that medical students and junior doctors have a staggering burnout rate of up to 60%. Unfortunately, I was just another part of this shocking statistic.

I had lost all the motivation and drive that I previously had. This made me feel guilty and rubbish about myself so I would end up comfort-eating. I would then feel guilty about eating lots of junk food, so would eat some more. This viscous cycle continued.

I knew I had to break out of this cycle somehow and restore some balance and productivity in my life. If I didn’t, I may well have ended up failing my assignments and exams. So what did I do? 

I started opening up to my close friends, who were also studying medicine. I told them how I was feeling so exhausted and lacking motivation. I explained how I was so fatigued and too tired to make it into hospital placements. Just by opening up and talking about what I was going through, I felt some therapeutic value. It was nice to no longer bottle up those thoughts and feelings. 

I began to read forums online about other medical students who had experienced burnout and was glad to know I was not the only one. My next steps, ironically, involved me taking a step back, paying attention to self-care and re-evaluating my priorities. I came to realise that there is more to life than getting good grades.

I researched ways to ensure a better work-life balance. This would involve taking breaks from studying, getting enough rest, engaging with those around me and ensuring regular contact with my family. I trialled new ways of keeping active too such as climbing and tennis and found that they were brilliant ways to de-stress and relax. 

Several weeks later, I felt re-energised and back to my normal self. I was no longer prioritising my studying, rather I was prioritising my work-life balance and happiness. I now realise there will never be a patient who asks me whether or not I graduated medical school in the top 10%. Rather, patients just need a well-rounded and competent doctor. So this was and is my new aim.

Now I am in my 5th year (intercalation year) and I have not experienced burnout since my episode in 3rd year, despite having just finished my finals. I credit this to my better coping mechanisms for stress and putting less pressure on myself. 

I remember speaking to a consultant plastic surgeon. I asked him what his work-life balance was like. He explained that in his earlier years as a doctor he was working a lot of over-time and doing private work and was able to make a nice amount of money doing so. But he went on to say that he wasn’t happy during this period. He had to move around the country a lot and sacrifice time with his family. He ended our little discussion by saying something that I have lived by ever since: “When I’m on my death bed, I will not regret not seeing more patients or working harder, I will instead regret time away from my family”. 

Nearly two years since speaking to him, I still remind myself and others of this ethos as it truly puts into perspective the important things in life. I no longer put unnecessary pressure on myself to achieve incredible results. Good enough is now good enough. This is not to say I have become lazy. I am still very motivated and hardworking towards my career but I have become more mature and have learnt an awful lot from being burnt out. A doctor cannot look after others if he/she cannot look after themselves first.

For those who have experienced similar, I would love to hear from you. Thank you for reading this long post. I welcome any and all comments. Until next time, keep smiling! 🙂 

The patient who changed my life

I consider myself somebody who incorporates the philosophy of stoicism in my life. It’s how I was brought up. I must be tough and stone-faced when hit by hardship or difficulty, I believed. I thought my ‘toughness’ would mean I would NEVER get sad no matter my medical career throws at me.

Well, this mindset of having a tough exterior (which I naively thought was good for an emergency medicine career anyway) was tested to its limits and beyond when I met a patient in my fourth year of medical school.

He was an 80-something year old retired paratrooper who, unfortunately, was in his last few weeks of his life due to malignant mesothelioma (a very rare cancer of the lungs associated with asbestos). I had the pleasure of being able to spend a week with him at the hospice.

He told me about his incredible experiences of jumping out of planes whilst in the Forces. He talked of the comradery with his “brothers” in the military and how they had each others’ backs. He then spoke of how his wife, of fifty years, had sadly passed away a year ago. He got tearful at this point and I decided to change the topic to something lighter and I was able to bring a smile back to his face.

It was clear to me that he really enjoyed parting some of his life experiences and wisdom with me and he was able to take his mind off his situation. Each day, I was able to build a stronger bond with him and he would often impart some advice such as: “spend as much time with your loved ones as you can”. 

Prior to this patient, I was, admittedly, not the most empathetic medical student. I had already become very cynical at such an early point of my career and I never let myself get too attached to patients or show any real interest in their life story. But here I was, talking to a real ‘man’s man’ who was opening up about his feelings and his life story with me, a stranger he had just met.

For the first time in my medical journey, I really felt connected to a patient and I formed a genuine bond with him. 

On my last day of being with him, I got to meet his daughter and granddaughter and it gave me happiness to see him being with his loved ones in his final moments. Saying goodbye to him was incredibly difficult and I even got a tear in my eye. I was able to exit with a joke which left us all laughing and in good spirits.

This experience is something that I have discussed again and again with my fellow medics and the doctors who supervise me. It was a MASSIVE turning point for me. Ever since I was fortunate enough to speak to this patient, I have advocated for empathy and tried to motivate those who may be becoming as cynical as I was.

I was the guy who was ‘too cool’ to care, but now I have been able to show genuine empathy and interest in every single patient I have seen since this gentleman. It makes me sad knowing that he is no longer here but it comforts me that he lived a full and rich life.

For any medics out there, I urge you to hold onto the reasons you wanted to do medicine in the first place. Don’t let the harsh and dark realities of this career beat the empathy out of you. I have been that un-empathetic medical student and trust me, it is not a worthwhile or meaningful thing to be. 

Every patient we meet has had a life before their illness and it’s important we treat the person and not just the disease. 

A smile goes a long way. Spending a minute or two at the beginning of the consultation to build a rapport with the patient is crucial. Always seek advice and support from those around you if you do start to feel overwhelmed and burnt out as this could directly affect your empathy levels. A book I read at the time was ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande and I highly recommend it as it gives a detailed insight into caring for the terminally ill.

Empathy is a crucial element of helping patients. Showing genuine interest and connecting with patients makes this career a lot richer. Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody.

P.S. I am sat by the beach in Croatia enjoying the sunset (see photo) as I type this. 😉👍

Until next time, keep smiling!

Who is the ‘Meditative Medic’?

WOW. I cannot believe I am sat here at 2am, having just watched another depressing episode of Bojack Horseman, writing my first ever blog. I always thought blogs were for self-absorbed people who believe they’re super-interesting. I am neither self-absorbed nor super-interesting – so why am I typing away right now? What changed? (Spoiler alert: I’m still neither of those two things).

This year, I have been on a journey of ‘self-discovery’ and reflection. This has involved reading the ever popular self-help genre of books, watching hours and hours of School of Life (and the like) on YouTube and thinking/talking about my feelings with others. I used to believe such activities were for losers, but now I know I was very wrong.

I have learnt that reflecting on my experiences is crucial for understanding them better as well as learning from them. Moreover, I have realised that it’s okay not to be okay. As someone brought up in an environment where we just get on with life and don’t talk about our feelings, I am slowly learning to open up. I’m currently exploring the concept of mindfulness and how I may be able to incorporate it into my own day-to-day life.

By now, I feel like I’ve introduced the ‘meditative’ part of my blogger name. The second part is, of course, the word: ‘medic’. I am a 5th year medical student in the UK who is about to begin an intercalation year (meaning I will be doing an accelerated 1-year BSc as a way of taking a ‘break’ from my normal medical degree). I have recently passed my medical school finals (All Praise is for God) and am feeling so damn relieved. This coming academic year, I will spend nine months in a very busy major trauma centre in the UK where I hope to gain masses of experience and knowledge in emergency medicine (EM) as I see myself doing EM as a career.

To close my first blog, I want to describe what you can expect from me. My blogs will be filled with my personal journey into becoming a more mindful, empathetic and well-rounded human being and eventually, doctor. I will post my discoveries on how I hope to become happier, more content and productive. I will tie this learning in with my experiences both in medicine and outside of it. In a time where more than a quarter (28%) of medical students suffer from depression , we should not shy away from talking about how we feel.

But worry not, this blog is not going to be full of doom and gloom – I aim to share some awesome experiences and learning points! I am humbled and grateful if you have read all of this. Until next time, keep smiling! 🙂