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Stories of Inspirational Journeys: “Reclaiming the Passion to Serve”

Charmaine R. Gregory, MD

The altruist in me was having a difficult time reconciling with the slow creep of my loss of passion to serve and succor. How did this happen? Like every other insidious process that infiltrates and consumes, my lost love occurred over time and was an accumulation of numerous events. When you look at yourself in the mirror everyday, it is very difficult to see the metamorphosis occurring. I became a real life example of the fact that small things done daily have a compound effect.

As I stood in front of the room filled with colleagues from my group’s corporate office, I was faced with the reality that my journey into the abyss of burnout and the lost love for my craft had been observed by those I committed to serve. There I was presenting a talk about work/life balance and talking about how to incorporate meditation and other wellness activities into our busy days when one of the women in the audience shared a truth with me. She said, “thank you for presenting to us today. The person who stands here now is not the same person that took care of me in the emergency department in the fall of 2014. That person was not happy, smiling, or welcoming. She was serious, harsh and made me uncomfortable. I was relieved at change of shift when my care was turned over to your colleague at bedside rounds. I was not unhappy with the care you gave me because your plan was spot on. It was just that I felt a tension from you that was palpable. The person you are today is completely different. You are visibly happy, excited and content. I am so glad that I have been a witness to this new you.”

Her words were candid and drove home the reality of my journey over a two-year period. She was right, I was different, I am different. The night I saw her was like most in the emergency department, busy and chock full of high acuity cases. I had no clue that I was coming across in the way that she described. I am indeed happy now. It made me especially happy that she spoke up in the group and told me what she saw. Most of all, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to apologize to her for that night. 

How did I get there? How did I fall into an enormous pit with my vision intact and not see it? What robbed my fire? Well, the answer to that question is complicated. Was it the zeal of completing training and taking on task after task in an effort to find my career niche? Was it volunteering to work shifts above and beyond my FTE? Was it not dealing with the loss of our first child or having three children in the span of four years? Was it the thought that professional mothers are expected to be excellent in everything, at home, at work, and in the community? Was it solely work? Was it the combination of work, family and undue self-inflicted pressures?

There is no one thing to explain my journey into the abyss of occupational burnout. The life-line out of this abyss was unexpected and accidental. A simple invitation to be part of a fitness support group totally changed my life.

In January 2015, I looked in the mirror and just did not feel comfortable in my own skin. My youngest child was 3 years old then and I still had not been able to get out of the 2 clothing size upgrade that followed her birth. Looking back at me was the young athlete trapped in a body that was getting older, wider, heavier and out-of-shape woman who was in desperate need of a change. During my youngest child’s pregnancy, I was very active with fitness classes, weight lifting, yoga and I even ran a 5K at 27 weeks. The post partum period with her was particularly rough as I struggled to get back into the groove at work and with my health. It was this drive to reclaim my wellness that caused some poor decision-making. I ran a 5K every month during the summer season with little or no training and as a consequence sustained a cryptic injury to my right knee. 

So began a year-long saga chock full of lower extremity Doppler, an unremarkable MRI, boat loads of NSAIDs, steroid injections, numerous physical therapy sessions, several arthocenteses, a rheumatology consultation, 50% atrophy of my right quadriceps, and loss of range of motion in my right knee. Ultimately, operative exploration was done and my knee was teeming with debris and my meniscus was badly torn. For sure, in my mind, getting this fixed would allow my return to an active lifestyle. I became active but I was so weak in my right lower extremity and deconditioned that my previous level of fitness was not the outcome. I had my surgery in the summer of 2014 and I started to recover in January 2015. 

As I started to work out and reclaim my fitness, I started to feel better. It was then that I realized that I was actually burned out. The funny thing is when I started to take care of myself and consistently got an infusion of endorphins from physical exercise, it became clear that for months I had no desire to go in at night and serve my patients. I would have a hard time getting out of bed from my anchor nap when the alarm went off before work each night. The joy of my craft was gone. The enthusiasm and passion for serving, learning and growing was gone. I looked at work as a means to pay the bills and wished constantly that I did not have to do it. The reason why I had no idea I was burned out was because I did not know or recognize the signs. It was when I started to feel better that I realized how bad it actually was. 

Part of my reclamation of self care was documenting my fitness journey and making a concerted effort to make a positive imprint on the social space. From this documentary spawned a passion to help others reclaim their fit selves. I dug deep into books about eating well and became very consistent with pressing play. By diving into organizing fitness support groups and helping others get fit, I discovered joy. Finding joy brought the love back for serving my patients in the emergency department and the drive to embrace my craft again. It was giving of myself that healed me. It was thinking of others that allowed me to appreciate the gift of being able to treat and serve patients night after night our busy emergency department.

Every person who has been in the abyss and risen out of it has a different narrative. The operative part of the narrative is the survival. The path to recovery and renewal does not have to be riddled with struggle. I am very honored to be a part of a group that values the wellness of the providers and have put in place wellness coaches, of which I am one, to help to prevent a repeat of my experience. Our cloth is such that breeds the attitude of resilience while we silently suffer inside. I implore you to look critically at your heart and truly account for where you stand in terms of burnout. We serve so many but we have to make sure that we take care of ourselves. Be strong. Be brave. Unleash your greatness!

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