The Moth Was the Last Straw

September 21, 2010

My patients probably sense the days when I am one moth away from a complete breakdown.

My husband related to me a difficult afternoon he had trying to get dinner ready while supervising homework and preventing our toddler from getting into mischief.

My husband was finally on task and heating up some oil for stir-fry when he saw a moth’s flight path across the kitchen. “Surely, it won’t land in the oil,” he thought. Surely, it did. Not a big deal, but frustrating enough having to turn off the stove, empty the oil, wash the pan, restart the stove, refill the pan, reheat the oil. I can sympathize with how a seemingly minor irritant can blossom into an overwhelming frustration.

My patients probably sense the days when I am one moth away from a complete breakdown. You know those days - a packed schedule with a few of your “favorite” patients double-booked, “emergency” FMLA paperwork that must be filled out this morning, a nursing home patient on the brink of disaster, and your OB patient in early labor. On these days, it takes all of my professionalism, self-control, and inner strength to patiently answer that “one last question” or accommodate the urgent request.

Unfortunately, since I have yet to reach Mom-nirvana, I have these days with my kids as well. Those days that you lose your temper when your son claims he “forgot” to brush his teeth or when your daughter starts whining about how it is unfair that her sister got an extra jelly bean. It’s tough to keep your cool during these moments.

Despite the routine, run-of-the-mill stresses, distractions, and frustrations that plague all of us, as moms and physicians, we have a dual reason to be the grown-up, act mature, and keep it together. As moms, little ones look up to us as a model of behavior and often as the gauge of the family’s emotional state. When we get overly upset, this often ripples throughout the home for days.

As physicians, we are supposed to be the healthy one in the physician-patient relationship. In dealing with people who are often ill, impaired, or have limited physical, emotional, or practical resources, we are obligated to demonstrate emotional maturity and professionalism.

One key part of keeping my composure at home, work, and in the grocery store is something that is easy to put low on the priority list. It is my own self-care. You know, all those things, you are “supposed to do” but feel too tired, guilty, or pressed for time to actually accomplish. This list includes sleep (and rest as well), exercise, healthy eating, social networking with friends and family, nurturing your positive relationships (and dumping the toxic ones).

If we don’t adequately attend to our self-care, we move steadily towards the edge - the edge of our patience, the edge of our tolerance, the edge of our flexibility, and sometimes even the edge of our sanity. As people who are important to other people - our patients, spouses, and kids - it is imperative that we prioritize ourselves in order to fully serve others.