I’m a doctor, but I call myself a “recovering physician.” As in, “Hi, I’m Lissa Rankin, and I’m a doctor.” (The physician 12-steppers in my made-up rehab respond, “Hi Lissa.”)
No, I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict or battling obesity in some [Fill In The Blank] Anonymous. Instead, I’m recovering from the wounds of 12 years of medical education and a decade of medical practice, which wounded me so deeply that, one day, after a grueling 72 hour labor and delivery shift, I found myself hunched over a grocery store check out counter, while a teen guy with sweat on his brow struggled to swipe my breakfast through the scanner. Without thinking about what I was about to say, I heard these words come out of my mouth.
“If I did my job the way you did your job, there would be dead people everywhere.”
Now mind you, I hadn’t slept in three days, I’d delivered 19 babies and saved the lives of one dying fetus and one woman hemorrhaging from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, and the only thing keeping me from my well-deserved bed was the food that this kid couldn’t manage to help me buy. But it’s no excuse for what popped out of my mouth in that moment.
I said that. And I’m a nice person. At least, I was before those words popped out of my mouth.
The minute I said that, I knew I was this close to getting broken by the system I had served for over a decade and which I swore I’d never let break me. In spite of everything I had done to resist it, I was becoming what I swore I would never become - one of the Pod People, those bitter, angry, spiritually-asleep people who let the system get under their skin so deeply that it threatened to suck out their soul.
After years of considering quitting and dismissing the thought as patently ridiculous, I suddenly, in that moment, knew I had to quit. The fear almost overpowered me - fear of financial ruin, fear of what people would think, fear of regret, fear of failure. Those fears dominated my mind so fully that I stayed in a life that hadn’t resonated with me for over a decade, because the comfort of the status quo - as miserable as it was - was less scary than the uncertainty of the unknown.
At the time, I was working as an OB/GYN partner in a busy managed care practice. I wasn’t happy professionally - and hadn’t been happy for about 15 years - but I was “successful” by all outer appearances. I had the fancy six figure income, the two homes, the boat, the nice cars, the Hawaii vacations, the cushioned retirement account.
But, on many levels, I was living a shell of a life. My job required that I see 40 patients a day, granting me as little as 7 ½ minutes with a patient, when I knew I had so much more to offer. Managed care had taken over as my boss, and I increasingly had less and less say about the kind of health care I delivered. Threats of medical malpractice loomed, malpractice insurance rates rose, and the cost of delivering care was skyrocketing.
My personal life suffered. At 33, I found myself twice divorced, and when I finally married hubby #3 (third time’s a charm) and had a daughter, I had to go back to working grueling 72 hour shifts when my daughter was only five weeks old and I was still nursing, not just my newborn, but a fresh C-section scar.
Even more disturbing was the damage I witnessed at the altar of the doctor-patient relationship. Where is the love? Why were so many of the doctors I knew so miserable, stressed, burned out, and unhealthy?
While my job could be exceedingly meaningful – and I was really grateful for the opportunity to deliver babies, do surgery, and attend women at the bedside - I was so busy and wounded that I lost touch with what had called me to service in the first place. The word “healing” wasn’t even in my vocabulary anymore.
For years, I fantasized about leaving medicine. I imagined wiping away the debt and responsibility and fear of malpractice suits and long nights on call. I visualized just going for it. I dreamed of being a full time artist and writer and leaving all the stresses of my former life behind. I nursed the fantasy of one day being happy.
But like any addict, something kept calling me back to my life as a doctor. Part of it was the drug of financial security, social status, and the affirmation of others. Another deeper, more compelling reason I stayed is because I felt called to the practice of medicine. And leaving your calling feels inherently wrong. But I just didn’t know how to stay within the system and resist the pressures from all sides that led me to say such an awful thing to that poor kid in the grocery store.
After the grocery store incident (and experiencing a series of personal crises I came to call “my Perfect Storm), it took me another year to navigate the technicalities of defecting from medicine. But in 2007, I finally did it. And although clinical medicine and I got back together after breaking up the first time, we broke up again in December of 2010, when I closed my integrative medicine practice to focus on writing books, public speaking, leading workshops, running Owning Pink, and helping other healers reclaim a sense of mission and purpose in their work.
My personal journey - which has included many healing practices such as writing, meditating, movement practices like yoga, S Factor, and Nia dance, art therapy, coaching, and a variety of other healing practices - has led me to open my heart to other physicians, nurses, and complementary/alternative health care providers who are burned out like I was and long to reclaim their sense of purpose, who are looking for a career change, or who want to break out of the box within their profession. These healers have made up the bulk of my one-on-one practice in the past year since I closed my clinical practice, and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE doing this kind of work.
If you’re a “recovering physician” or other type of health care provider and you feel called to let me help you navigate your own self-healing journey so you can better serve those under your care, I’d be so honored to help you. And if you know anyone who might need such help, please spread the word.
The way I see it, the more health care providers can heal themselves, the more we can be missionaries for love, vision, and an expanded definition of health that incorporates, not just the physical health of the body, but emotional health, interpersonal health, professional health, sexual health, spiritual health, financial health, and all the other facets of what makes us whole.
Have you let the system beat you down? Have you lost touch with your sense of mission and purpose? Are you burned out, stressed out, frustrated by those who don’t understand the kind of healing services you offer, or otherwise in need of healing? Share you story here.
With great love,
Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, Pink Medicine Revolutionary, motivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.
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