I checked my right brain at the door when I started medical school in 1995. Writing, performing music, and acting didn’t make it in. How could they? I had very little free time and why would I want to cling to touchy feely distractions? I was prepared to sacrifice personal interests and passions to clear my mental decks. I wanted to dedicate all my brain power to the promise of learning critical information that would empower me to care for the ill. It was a left brain dominant exercise for sure. And walking the hill at my graduation from KU, I remember thinking I had given up my love for art and beauty in the world to fill my mind with far too much clinically irrelevant minutiae.
I had screwed up very, very badly. No doubt, many of my peers made the same mistake I did when we started med school. Until recent life events smacked me upside the head (much, much more on that later), I had given up on my right brain enthusiasms. On an EEG, it would have been a virtual flat-line. The creative, inventive, passionate side of me was in squalor and disrepair. What I thought had been an informed decision to become a brilliant doctor (and I only use that adjective as a hypothetical description, not necessarily my reality!) left me as a doctor who only used half his brain. That, dear reader, was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.
Certainly, there were limited benefits to this decision. If I spent my career as a right brain dominant person, then I would have been crushed by the emotional nature of the work and flamed out long ago. I even managed to find the love of my life, and I take great joy in being with my children. Being with my family is the primary motivation that gets me through my week.
Keeping some distance and being slightly dispassionate on the job is how most of us survive. We also find individual tools to keep us going. My primary coping skill is sarcastic humor. Without the ability to laugh at myself and the impossible situations I sometimes find myself in professionally, I’d have been carted to the loony bin long ago! And in the hospital, where I’ve spent almost my entire career, it hits every single one of us in the face at times. And some days, just when we manage to pull it all together after being sucker punched emotionally, we find ourselves knocked to the ground again. Medicine can be the most rewarding, as well as the most cruel, profession in the world.
Nobody who works in a hospital gets by unscathed – from the highly trained and professional code blue team desperately working to resuscitate the 23-year-old expectant mother who won’t live see her baby – to the housekeeping crew who cleans up the blood soaked floor and walls from the family of 5 killed in a car accident – it can be terrible. Personally, I’ve seen bad things TNTC. That means “too numerous to count” for all of you normal, non-medical people of whom I have been increasingly jealous over the past decade. If I let my right brain run amok, I’d never get out of bed. I’d never go to work again. None of us would. It would simply be too much.
Compartmentalization is a key to survival, but the expectation and demand for compartmentalization is also destructive to us personally and professionally. The internet is littered with hundreds, if not thousands, of vignettes from physicians, nurses and support staff who have given their all at work, only to find themselves inadequately cared for with respect to their own mental health. And with the nearly universal philosophy of “doing more with less,” the pressure cooker is only going to increase in intensity. More on this later, after some additional research.
As for now, in reading this, you are an unwitting victim of my need to practice writing again. It’s akin to watching a 46 year-old former minor league baseball player at batting practice after not playing for 23 years. Sure, he can swing the bat, but it’s a helluva lot slower and sometimes ugly to watch. And like the ball player who dreams of getting just one chance to play in the Bigs, I’m dreaming of making a larger difference than settling for just one-patient-at-a-time.
What I can only now call some “healthcare-related concepts” have fired up my right brain. Maybe too much. The din of exploding ideas inside my head is deafening at times. But other than asking my lovely wife to marry me, the conscious decision to bring my right brain back from the brink of death might be the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
PS – for any of you neurologists or neurobiologists out there, I am well aware that the left brain, right brain concept is not very accurate clinically. Get over it. I’m emoting.
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