By Nikita Machado
“Physician, heal thyself!” Across history, these words have been attributed to different sources, including Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, the Genesis Rabbah in 300 B.C, and the Greek playwright Aeschylus, in whose play Prometheus Bound the chorus laments “Like an unskilled doctor, fallen ill, you lose heart and cannot discover by which remedies to cure your own disease.”
Oh, the irony.
As physicians, and more specifically surgeons, we are part of a rare group of people. We care tremendously for the health and well-being of our patients– going out of our way to ensure the best outcomes we can for them. However, self-care often falls by the wayside, and we don’t give our own minds and bodies the fuel and care they need to perform optimally. As current data shows, those who listen to their inner cues and pay attention to their wellness can sustain a fulfilling career over a long period of time. The previous post dealt with the significant and outwardly visible benefits of physical wellness. Equally important but intangible are the concepts of intellectual and spiritual wellness.
In its simplest form, people who strive for intellectual wellness are focused on maintaining good mental health and intellectual growth, while keeping a creative spark alive. We see this every time we meet a new challenge, learn a new skill, or try new experiences. Those hobbies that we gave up because our careers became so all-consuming are the very ones that might restore that spark of joy that drew us to medicine in the first place.
Some physicians play in amateur concerts, others make it a point to finish a list of highly rated book titles every year. The surgeon who mentored my husband during his residency is a skilled woodworker in his spare time. And me? My husband and I are passionate escape room enthusiasts, determined to complete an escape room in all 50 states, having just finished our 100th. The point is to find a skill/hobby/experience that is not necessarily related to medicine, but which allows our minds to grow in tangential, unexpected ways. Something which broadens our horizons and shows us a different way to look at things; something that exposes us to new processes and beliefs and bolsters critical thinking.
This kind of intellectual growth helps us in the practice of surgery as well. It allows us to approach complex cases from different angles, maintain the skills that allow us to be lifelong learners, and helps us to better cope with the innate stresses of a surgical career. As an undergraduate and medical student, I found a creative outlet in reading and writing fiction and poetry. Immersing myself in worlds outside the practice of medicine helped take my mind off daily stresses. In essence, this was escapism of the best kind. Even as a busy resident, I promised myself I would never let that reading habit go. Regardless of how busy my rotation was at the time, I would keep books loaded on my iPhone or Kindle for easy access. This allowed me to read whenever I found spare moments during the day, and I looked forward to those moments with eager anticipation.
Spiritual wellness, on the other hand, focuses more on recognizing a sense of purpose and meaning in life. The practice of medicine, by nature, gives most physicians an in-built sense of purpose and a drive to serve others. It ensures that we operate at the highest moral and ethical level that we are capable of.
Whether we as physicians practice a specific faith, whose tenets remind us to treat those who are suffering with kindness, mercy, and compassion, or whether we strive to live by a personal moral code and philosophy that ensures the best for our patients, we are all on the same page. As a Catholic, faith has always played an important part in my life. I believe it inspires me to be a caring physician, focused on every aspect of my patient’s well-being. The lessons of humility, love, and service are what I carry with me into my daily practice. Patients are often hesitant to bring up topics of faith and spirituality with their physicians, believing that science and spirituality cannot co-exist. However, acknowledging their anxiety and need for emotional and spiritual support can often strengthen the bond between physician and patient, center them in the disease process and help us communicate with them in a deeper way.
Spiritual wellness, in both regards, helps us to make sense of our place in this world, to be grateful for the innumerable blessings we have been given, and to cope with the challenges, difficult outcomes, and even losses of the patients we hold dear. There are a number of resources online that can help you get started on your journey to spiritual wellness, but the simplest ones I could find all seem to say the same thing –
Take your time to think about and process daily events. Write them down. Pray or meditate as per your preference to find a moment of calm in the storm. Read about the experiences of those further along this journey to wellness (yes, physicians can sometimes be philosophers) and travel when you can. There’s nothing like an unexplored horizon to truly remind us of our place in this world and how infinite the possibilities for our lives and careers truly are.
In the meantime, I’m off to do another escape room with my husband, preferably in an unexplored city, with prayers and gratitude for the privilege of this profession and the colleagues who make it possible. Even on the hardest days, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Resources for Intellectual and Spiritual wellness:
Dr. Nikita Machado (in the photo with her husband Dr. Terence Jackson, after their 98th escape room) is the 2022-2023 Endocrine Surgery Fellow at Yale New Haven Hospital. Having completed her surgical residency at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, she spent three years in practice as a general surgeon at University Hospitals Conneaut, Ohio. Her main areas of focus are surgical education and healthcare equity for underserved populations.
When she is not at work, you can find her traveling across the country with her husband and two dogs, doing escape rooms, and honing her baking skills. You can find her on Twitter at @machado_nikita.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and, as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.