At the end of my junior surgical residency years, I was in a pretty bad physical and mental space. With resident coverage shortages, long hours, chronic fatigue, and personal pressures to perform and shine, I wound up digging myself into a hole, heading straight to resident burnout. Although there were others around me experiencing similar environmental stressors, I certainly felt alone – not knowing how to climb out of the hole I created for myself.
This was probably the lowest I have been in my life, but I finally got myself back on track. Coming from a fairly physically active background, I returned to a life of proper nutrition and physical activity. I began swimming, biking, and running, with the hopes of maybe one day doing a triathlon. There were a few health care professionals at my institution who competed in yearly triathlons, which certainly inspired me to take up the sport. So, last August, I signed up for my first Half-IRONMAN in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, and had roughly 10 months to train. Looking back, I am not sure what possessed me to think I could achieve such a feat, but it was certainly a goal to work toward.
So, on June 26, 2016, after 70.3 miles and one of the most grueling experiences I intentionally ever put myself through (including residency training), I became a Half-IRON(WO)MAN. Reflecting on these entire 10 months, but more specifically the 7 hours and 46 minutes that it took me to complete the Half-IRONMAN, I realized the stark similarity between residency and IRONMAN. Therefore, calling all new residents who have begun or will be shortly commencing residency training, “Residency is like an IRONMAN!”
First, take it slow and steady. Residency is long and arduous, and it is easy to overpace yourself in the first few months – but keep in mind that you are in it for the long haul (for some, it’s longer than 5 years).
Second, be nice to your body and mind. You wouldn’t believe how some of the most-challenging experiences are all psychological; therefore, eat well, sleep well, and practice mindfulness every day. Develop a routine early on, so that when you meet grueling experiences and challenges, your routine will make you equipped to overcome them. The practice of mindfulness (a mental state of being aware in the present moment) will be unique to each individual and may be performed through exercising, yoga, or more traditionally, through meditation. Third, develop or strengthen a support system to help you identify and overcome problems that you may face during residency.
Ideally, this will be a support system (for example, residents, coworkers, and staff) that know exactly what you will be facing and offer constructive advice for the trials and tribulations you will be confronting. Finally, residency will be the most-challenging experience you may go through yet in your pursuit of postgraduate medical education. You are not alone on this journey, and the path to success will be burdened with physical and mental exhaustion, tears, groans, as well as smiles. But when you cross that finish line, let me tell you that the emotions that will overwhelm you will be those of complete exuberance and utter disbelief that you had the courage and determination to not only undertake the challenge but to succeed, as well.