Docs must embrace relationships, self-care to avoid burnout
by Howard Chang, MD —
Thank you for taking the time to read my first MSSC column. I’m Howard Chang, an emergency physician primarily working at Ascension Via Christi and Rock Regional EDs. Serving as the MSSC president this year is a distinct honor, and I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself.
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. I attended the University of Maryland for undergrad and the University of Virginia for medical school. I matched into Emergency Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia. Following residency, I found my way to Wichita.
For the past 15 years, Wichita has been my home. Now, the burning question: “Which team is he on?” As you know, Wichita has two warring factions: the east-siders and the west-siders. Each rival is passionate about their superiority. Truth be told, I moved to the north side, and it takes me the same amount of time to drive to Bradley Fair as it does to NewMarket Square. But if pressed, I’d have to say the west side is better. Ha!
My wife (an optometrist) and I have a 6-year-old daughter who is both the headache and inspiration of our lives. In our role as parents, we spend all our available time shuttling her to a myriad of classes and events, hoping to enrich her life.
As a family, we love to travel. Having visited almost 80 countries, my wife and I aim to add one or two new countries to our list each year. Our goal is to reach 100 countries, but this has become very challenging with a daughter in elementary school. When asked about my favorite place, I honestly can’t choose. Each country has its unique beauty. Nevertheless, I do have a soft spot for the culture of Japan, the natural beauty of New Zealand and the amazing carbohydrates of Italy. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is also a must-see. Feel free to catch me to chat about traveling.
Scheduling all these trips can be an ordeal, but I live by the ER mantra of “work hard, play hard.” This mantra resonates strongly among emergency medicine physicians. Unfortunately, our interaction with patients often occurs during the worst moments of their lives, exposing us to tragedy, unfairness, cruelty and sadness. Acknowledging life’s unpredictability, we work hard but recognize the need to play just as hard.
During the early days of COVID in 2020, local ER volumes dropped significantly. We were down to about 50% of norm at one point. So emergency physicians were blessed with a rare opportunity to hunker down at home. There was no traveling. There was no eating out. There were no patients. There was only boredom.
I wasn’t accustomed to doing nothing, and my wife was at wit’s end with me just hanging around the house all day. So I repaired an old raised garden bed and bought a tomato plant. Unfortunately, the poor plant was quickly eaten by slugs and pill bugs. Undeterred, I bought more vegetable plants, delved into gardening literature, and assembled a few more raised garden beds.
Nowadays, I use emergency medicine to support my gardening addiction. My entire kitchen transforms into a greenhouse in winter and early spring. Focusing on heirloom seeds, I’ve ventured into growing unique plants, like the Chinese Python Snake Bean, Birdhouse Gourds, rare chili peppers and more. The stranger and more exotic, the better. If interested, let me know and I’ll even save you seeds from the next harvest so you can start your own weird garden. I am happy to share!
Other hobbies I picked up include wine making, woodworking and the ukulele. These activities may seem random, but they were my cure for burnout in the ER. As many of you are aware, emergency medicine ranks highest among all specialties in burnout. For me, nothing beats watching the pollinators on my cucumber flowers or messing around on my uke to unwind after an intense shift.
There are so many MSSC physicians who have an unwavering servant dedication to their patients. Kudos to all of you for tirelessly working to ensure your patients receive the highest quality care possible. Your commitment is truly commendable. However, there can be a cost – your wellness, and the sacrifice of time with family or for self-care, like sleep.
We often advise patients, “You must take care of yourself before you can take care of others.” This rings especially true in our line of work. If you invest in your relationships with your friends and family, you will lead a more fulfilling life. You will take better care of yourself, and you will also take better care of your patients. This month, I ask each of you to invest in your wellness account. Make time to watch a movie, go for a drink or play a board game. Physician wellness is more important now than ever before.
In a future newsletter column, I’ll highlight three MSSC physicians who’ve completed Ironman competitions. Talk about wellness! They are true superheroes among us. Unfortunately, all three are east-siders.