By Julia Close, MD
Occasionally, you may catch me in my car in the doctor’s lot, staring in the mirror. It may appear I’m finishing up my make-up or adjusting my hair—I’m not. I’m looking myself in the eye, taking a deep breath, and telling myself, “You can do this,” to calm the palpitations that have crept in as I have contemplated the day to come.
Monday, October 3, was one of those days. September had been a full month: personally, there was Hurricane Irma, with its prolonged power and water loss and kids out of school, trips out of town for work, and a flare of a chronic medical condition. In the background, images of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, and the resulting devastation. October was not looking much better, as the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas filled the airways. As a program director, that Monday represented a day spent welcoming and interviewing applicants, while my to-do list, left unattended, grew longer. I was concurrently starting a 2-week stint attending on general medicine wards. I asked for extensions on a few projects, and wondered again why I let myself feel so defeated by the request. Emotions swirled, exacerbated by the weight of work obligations.
I got out of my car that day. I’m a runner, and the greatest thing running has taught me is a lot can be accomplished one step at a time. I took the first step, and the next, and faced the day. The news of out Las Vegas was progressively worse, while the interview day went pretty well. I managed to round with the general medicine team and get home before my kids went to bed. Tired and overwhelmed, I suggested we skip our nightly routine of reading Harry Potter. My 7-year-old insisted, and I read.
As I went to bed, I learned Tom Petty had died. I live in Gainesville, FL, his hometown. We are proud of two things: the Gators (most of the time) and Tom Petty. It was too much. I went to bed in a haze of emotion.
The next morning, during my commute, I listened to a story about Tom Petty on NPR. In an old recording, Petty talked about a house fire that had left him with only the shirt on his back. He saw that fire not as a devastating event, but as evidence of his ability to survive. This led to his hit “I Won’t Back Down.”
Sometimes, the world forces us to put everything into perspective. The simple act of reading a book to my children after a long day of work required so many wonderful things to come together. Feeling overwhelmed by work is often just evidence of exciting and meaningful projects. These are things I need to remember when life weighs down on me.
There’s a great TED talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal entitled “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” In it, she discusses how our attitudes about the stress response impact the outcome—I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, stress is our body preparing to be awesome.
I’m going to use this energy to get some amazing things done.
Dr. Close is a clinical associate professor at the University of Florida, where she is the program director of the Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program. In addition to education, she is focused on performance improvement as the assistant chief of medical service in the Gainesville VA Medical Center.