“Don’t worry.” It’s one of the most common refrains in our house, spoken in my general direction. Because I worry about a lot of things. Many of these worries are low-level, background noise. They’ve been kicked into overdrive with recent life changes, and this has prompted a reflection on the ways in which our jobs affect our lives. This will be the first in a series of blog posts exploring that theme, and I hope these posts can lead to a discussion about healthy strategies we can all employ.
“Normal” people have the luxury of being free from certain concerns. As I move through my first pregnancy, my friends and family offer well-received advice. Some of it concerns the mechanics of pregnancy and birth that frankly don’t stress me out. I have minimal concerns about an epidural, or a c-section, feeling confident that if my doctors tell me an intervention is necessary, I’ll believe them, and I’m confident that they are capable of performing the intervention adequately. My experiences in the ER providing care actually help to allay concerns in this regard, as I know the vast majority of doctors have patients’ best interests at heart.
Of course, when the conversation turns to what I do worry about, I often look up to find horrified stares. I worry about catastrophe. I worry about never events. Not all the time, and certainly not in (what I think!) a pathologic way, but the things I fear are the things many of my friends didn’t even know could go wrong.
We have all taken care of toddlers killed in freak accidents, then left the room to care for their broken parents. We have diagnosed countless people younger than ourselves with likely terminal cancers. In the moment, we know this affects us. Even those among us good at building the wall, compartmentalizing what we see from our personal lives, can tell after a difficult case that there’s a change in the mood of the room. Sometimes we have time to honor this feeling and tune into it, and sometimes we have to move on and take care of more, possibly even sicker patients. However, even for those among us who are the best at “leaving work at work,” there’s never a hard and fast line.
Unfortunately for me, my own awareness of these things sometimes tips toward an overemphasis on the worst things that can happen. I’m by no means a hypochondriac, but I am a worrier. Those horrified stares of my friends? They help to alert me that I’ve crossed over into a world inhabited only by the doctors who have seen things. Emergency medicine has a reputation for engendering a certain cynicism in its practitioners, with their seen-it-all attitude, and the way this manifests is different for each of us. In my case, I sometimes need a gentle reminder that these experiences have molded who I am as a person, but they shouldn’t impede my ability to enjoy life’s milestones and moments.
One of the healthier ways I know to cope with the things I see is to remind myself to be grateful for what I have. As someone who doesn’t embrace mantras and certainly isn’t into cutesy anything, I do often refer to when I’m having a “badittude” and the ensuing need to exchange it for an attitude of gratitude. It’s a conscious effort to focus on the positives as seen through the lens of EM, and retraining my brain to not always be prepared for the worst. It’s important to make the best effort to appreciate the small moments and imperfections in our own lives.
While I don’t plan to routinely use this space to discuss my life, I do hope that it will encourage other people to share their own struggles with work bleeding into real life, and strategies for dealing with it. I welcome all of your thoughts on how you focus on the positive gifts that caring for others can give to us, and I hope this becomes a place where we can share tips and strategies within our community to help each of us to be happier and healthier.
Dr. Marinelli is an attending physician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and the director of the UIC Wellness Curriculum.