Balancing Service and Personal Need as a Physician

May 27, 2014

Physicians, like others who serve, often meet professional obligations before their own personal needs. But it is important to carve out time to recharge.

I blog about work-life balance weekly because I believe strongly in the health and necessity of this principle. It is important, especially in medicine which can be one of the most demanding of professions, to keep perspective and purposefully balance professional and personal endeavors. However, on this Memorial Day week, I wanted to take some time to honor those whose historical and current sacrifices remind us of the times when work-life balance is not honored because of a higher calling.

My best friend is currently serving in Afghanistan. She is a family physician, and like me, has four kids and a husband.  She volunteered to serve her country half a world away. For the duration of her deployment, her work-life balance will be decidedly off-kilter; out of necessity and out of duty.

This Memorial Day we remembered those throughout history who have made tremendous personal sacrifice in the defense of their country, who have honored others before self, and whose dedication to an ideal was greater than their dedication to personal goals or fulfillment. We are all humbled by the gifts given by brave countrymen and women who gave us the freedom to navigate our own roads to personal and professional enjoyment.

As physicians, we also hold certain principles and ideals more highly than family-time, personal growth, and self-care.  We are expected, and indeed we expect of ourselves, to hold service to our fellow men and women as a higher calling than self-interest. This is why we spend years in grueling training, why we answer a pager at 3 a.m., and why we view our profession as a calling, not just an occupation. While physicians are rarely asked to sacrifice our lives for professional duty, we are certainly asked to sacrifice much.

While our honorable soldiers, sailors, and airmen risk life and endure hardship to do their duty, they also have periods apart where so much does not hang in the balance. They deploy, and fortunately, most of them come home. When they do come back home, their duty is to rest, rejuvenate, and reconnect with their families and their loved ones. As a country, we are fortunate that they serve us as our protectors and defenders.  However, we also recognize that they are people - humans - and do not have limitless capabilities and are not machines. When their duty is discharged, we expect that they will lay aside their weapons, boots, and packs, and rest.

Likewise, as physicians, we need to do the same. We have an obligation to discharge our duty to those who need us, depend upon us, and call to us in moments of crisis and emergency. However, we are not only heroes and doers and professionals. Therefore, when our duty has been accomplished, we likewise have the obligation to ourselves and to our families, and to the next group of patients, to rest, relax, reconnect, and rejuvenate.

I hope this past weekend was an opportunity for most of you to do just that. For those here at home and those overseas who spent the weekend in pursuit of duty, thank you for your sacrifices.