by: Marie-Christine Wright, JD
“I’m discovering that women can have it all, just not all at the same time.” If we can’t have it all at the same time, is there always room for wellness, and what does being well really mean? There is the obvious answer: physical health. But in addition, we must nurture our mental and spiritual health. A surgical career requires nurturing, but so does a human being: how do we do both, without compromising either?
First we must view our life’s path in two timelines: the daily minutiae and the long-term. We want to exercise and eat well on a daily basis, which seems impossible when one has all but 10 minutes to shove hospital cafeteria food in one’s mouth, spends 12 or more hours on her feet rounding or in the OR, and has to keep up with her field by reading after work. When are you supposed to exercise if you are in the hospital by 5:30 am and home after 8 pm? While you may not have time for a gym session, you can execute a simple routine at home, whether it’s a brisk jog, yoga, or stretching. Take the stairs at work. Invest in healthy snacks that you can bring to work to prevent cafeteria binging, and spend the extra money to buy healthy prepared meals that are easy to warm up at home, rather than getting take out. Or, just prepare large batches of healthy fare once a week (if you’re like me and easily get bored eating the same thing, freeze single portions of several large dishes so that you can defrost something different each night).
Admittedly, as a student, fitting in exercise and preparing one’s meals is much more doable. An hour of exercise can actually help break up a marathon study session and refresh the mind. And better eating translates to better thinking. Beyond exercise and eating well, spiritual nurturing comes in the form of community service. I always feel lighter and more fulfilled after spending time helping the community, whether I am assessing inpatients at the local drug abuse recovery shelter, or working on art projects with children. Your community service can, but does not have to, be medical in nature, especially if you have outside interests (side note, having outside interests makes you more interesting as well!).
Long-term, mission trips are important humanitarian work that not only benefit the community you are servicing, but help fill the well of your soul, too. One of the members of the AWS Medical Student Committee, National Chair Carla Valenzuela, recently traveled to Kenya to assist with a Head and Neck surgical mission. She described her experience as life-changing: “I would recommend a mission trip to anyone in medicine—it opens your eyes to health disparities and how much you can accomplish with patience, thinking resourcefully, and working as hard as possible to improve patient outcomes in a place where there are limited surgical subspecialists.”
Medical schools are generally supportive of such trips, and students should not be afraid to ask for excused absences and flexibility to accommodate such essential experiences. Residents, too, will find their institutions supportive in planning around mission trips; you just have to know how to formulate your request. If you need to get away and recharge your batteries, take advantage of vacation days. Ultimately, being healthy requires that one set boundaries to protect life outside of work. From a resident’s perspective, “A lot of us lose some of our outside selves to medicine, and we are doing okay, but we could be doing so much better. We shouldn’t just accept ‘okay.’”
Marie-Christine Wright, JD is a medical student at Tulane and the National Vice-Chair of the AWS Medical Student Committee. A nontraditional second year student, Marie-Christine founded a financial firm in Switzerland and obtained her law degree before attending medical school. She has long been interested in pediatric neurosurgery and looks forward to empowering women to pursue careers in surgery.