Our holidays, or lack thereof
I have spent the last three of four Christmases in the hospital, serving people other than my own family. It’s something my parents and siblings got used to in time, and it was only one of thousands of ways that, it seemed, my career took priority over my personal life. Training forces you to rearrange your life such that the things most people take for granted — weekends, the occasional vacation, holidays—are the first to go, with your closeness to your family drifting close behind. Even outside the holidays I don’t answer personal calls and have always encouraged my family to text, instead, in case someone — nurse, doctor, fellow resident — needed to reach me on hospital business. It was easier to compartmentalize, to take care of personal matters after work hours — to leave my own affairs for the few hours that I did not spend at the hospital, the few hours permitted me in the three-day cycle of duty/postduty/preduty.
Visits from my family or my partner, during the day and during duty hours, dwindled. It was easier this way since I couldn’t entertain them, anyway, and I always had one foot out the door, ready to attend to calls. That way you didn’t go crazy, and that way you were able to take care of pressing matters when you needed to. Besides, wasn’t it noble to be taking care of others during the holidays?
My family gradually adapted. I put up a passable impression that I did the same.
However, these last two Christmases since we lost my mother have taught me a few lessons on personal and professional life, and what it is to miss out on love and family for the sake of other people, and then to suddenly find that the love you thought would wait for you is gone. There are no easy answers for young doctors and nurses who have made the choice to be available to the hospital staff and patients first of all, and to their friends and family second, during duty hours. But the admissions, referrals and ER calls won’t stop, anyway, and life should go on regardless. It’s time to stop glorifying the stress of healthcare service and to start making sure we’ll still have meaningful home lives to come back to.
One of the things to hit closest to home was when a family member told me that they wished I would reply to their messages the way I always replied to my consultants. Looking back, maybe that should have been the first step—to acknowledge that, as important as my superiors were, they couldn’t be more important than my family ALL the time, since this would be a fine recipe for burnout. There has to be a conscious effort on my part to reply to messages I deem inconsequential even at the height of stress, which isn’t always easy, since work in the hospital is a constant race against time. And while there may not be enough time for me to come home to the province to see my family, some effort has to be made to accommodate them during the few times they choose to make the journey northward to find me in the hospital, to bring a bit of the holidays along with them.
Self-help books all give worthy tidbits of advice on how to keep stress levels down and achieve a more optimal work-life balance, such as regular exercise and learning to say no, but for me it has boiled down to making sure your family knows that they matter, to keep that thread of love alive as it connects you over distances. Medicine might not know its own boundaries and may creep into every aspect of our personal lives, but it shouldn’t always have the honor of being the very most important thing on our plate.
We keep postponing our happiness, saying we’ll spend time with our families after med school, after internship, after residency, when our lives can finally begin. But this IS real life, and before we know it our twenties and thirties will be behind us, and we’ll join every overworked underpaid corporate achiever who suddenly ends up realizing that they let so much go past them. So maybe we have to work during the holidays since this comes with the job. But maybe the rest of the time, we can try not to make our families feel like they’re always on the back burner.
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