By HANS DUVEFELT
I am a 68 year old family physician in rural Maine. This morning I read yet another article about physician burnout, this time in The New York Times. (I’m not linking to it, because they have a “paywall”.)
I did not end up exactly where and how I expected to be at the end of my career, or life in general to be brutally honest. But I am the happiest I have been since the beginning of my journey in medicine.
I have a balance in my life I didn’t have, or even seek, for many years as I juggled patient care, administration, raising a family and pursuing interests that often brought me away from home.
My days in the clinic are a bit shorter than they used to be, but in the past several years I have had to do much more work from home – even more so in the last two. The “half-empty glass” way to look at this is that work has intruded more into my personal life and my home. The “half-full” view is that I can do my computer work when it suits me the best. For one of my clinic positions, I can do charting on an iPad mini in bed, coffe on my nightstand and sleeping dogs at my feet. The clumsier EMR requires a laptop (which in my view can’t be used the way its name might suggest) I sometimes work on in the barn and sometimes on a picnic table in the grass outside.
Ironically, the pandemic has brought me a peace and clarity I probably wouldn’t have achieved otherwise.
I had thought moving back to Caribou for a position with no administrative responsibilities would open up social opportunities I hadn’t allowed myself for the last few years. I expected to become involved with the Swedish community here, connecting more with neighbors and other horse owners, and so on.
But the lockdown forced me to sit more with my own thoughts, my own feelings and memories. It forced me to consider, not for the first time but again, that in this unpredictable life, the only sure thing is that I am me and I am where I am.
When I, as many other people, realized that this pandemic could wipe out countless people including myself, and completely change the living conditions for those who survived, it completely freed me from worrying about the small stuff. Or, rather, from considering the small stuff, because I’m not really a worrier. I just used to run a lot of what-if scenarios through my head. I used to be several steps ahead in my mind and have not only Plan B figured out. I would have backups to my backups.
Now I fully accept the unpredictability of life and that has freed up a lot of mental capacity and even time for me.
I have published three books and my blog has continued to grow. At this writing I have posted every single day for the last three weeks. The more I write, the more ideas I have. And my writing is inspired by my engagement with patients and the thinking about medicine they provoke in me. My clinic work informs my writing and my writing makes me a more curious clinician. I go to work thinking “what interesting things will I see today?”
How could I feel burnout when every clinic day is where I go for writing inspiration?
The pandemic has also, ironically, brought me closer to friends and family. Pre-pandemic, I felt too busy to connect, especially in person, never liked to talk on the phone, and I was not into social media. Now I text, call or chat often with my children. I FaceTime biweekly with my exchange student year brother from 50 years ago. I email and chat with cousins in Sweden and some of their children are in my Facebook feeds.
I am also more connected to my home. I take greater joy in doing the little fix-ups. In years past, my home improvements were on a grander scale. Now I do the little, low key things with just as much pride.
I only leave the property to work in my clinic (my second job is via telemedicine from my kitchen island) and to go shopping. The animals thrive on being all together and mild summer nights we all sleep in the barn with the top doors open. I love falling asleep to the sounds of summer, the snoozing of dogs and the chomping of hay.
I am so content with my life as a country doctor.
Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.