Vitals: Spring 2016 – President’s Report: Taking Back Our Wellbeing

Taking Back Our Well-Being

By Dr. Hemant Sindhu, CIR President, 2015-2016Hemant Sindhu

Two months ago, I received word about something we all fear hearing about but rarely speak openly about. One of my fellow CIR members was found dead, having jumped from the window of her apartment building. Work ground to a halt that day for many people, particularly her friends and colleagues at the hospital.

“It does not matter how close or far away you were from this girl, we all felt some degree of heartbreak at the news,” wrote a colleague in an anonymous piece posted on The author described the need to process, to grieve, to give and share support with one another. Some were afforded time and space to do this; some were expected to work through their shock and grief.

It’s all too common for residents to feel they must push aside their emotions in the wake of tragic or otherwise difficult events and carry on as normal. We become resigned to a certain culture of residency that requires us to check our well being at the hospital door and work past our limits, physically and emotionally.

It’s time now for us to speak up together and change that culture.

In the beginning of my training, before the 16-hour work limit for interns was established in 2011, there was not a single day that I left the hospital before midnight or got  more than three to four hours of sleep per night. I’ve thought many times in retrospect about how I was doing wrong by my patients, but when you’re in the midst of it, you don’t realize the danger that you’re in or that could be putting others into. I’ve seen mistakes happen due to lack of sleep, and it’s devastating for the patient, devastating for the doctor who makes the mistake, and devastating for everyone else involved.

Our colleague who recently died by suicide, our colleagues who struggle with substance abuse, and the mistakes we see or that we ourselves may make are all stark reminders that residents should not be considered an excepted class, expected to put aside our own well being.

So what do we do? How do we take back our physical and emotional well being and keep those aspects of our lives that threaten our well being in check?

Acknowledge and accept that it really is okay to say “I’m exhausted.” Whatever anyone else might say, it doesn’t make us weak and doesn’t mean we can’t handle residency. Identify sources of stress, such as an inefficient system that we can help remedy. We have a seat at the table in our hospitals to creatively think about and implement change. Having a voice makes a difference. We have thousands of members across the country with whom to share experiences, share stories, and share ideas, which is a huge, valuable resource.

We should use this time to train our bodies and minds to balance the stressors of medicine. I encourage you to take learning seriously and also to set aside time to unwind and have an outlet outside of training.  You can have a personal life outside of your training.

Remember that none of us are alone. We are part of an organization that has 60 years of experience in lifting the voices of residents collectively, and we know that there is a strength in numbers.

As we approach a new academic year, whether you’re beginning your residency, heading into another year of training, or moving on to the next chapter of your career, I hope you’ll join me in speaking out about a culture of residency that breaks us down and isolates us.