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Voices: Learning how to take care of ourselves | Katherine R. Tucker, MD

Jan 9, 2020

Voices: Learning how to take care of ourselves | Katherine R. Tucker, MD

After spending years learning how to take care of others, I realized this year that studying medicine hadn’t taught me how to take care of myself. The tools I was using to stay grounded and balanced were simply a way to ignore my personal needs. I had to admit personal failure and overcome my deep-rooted stigma of asking for help.

Katherine R. Tucker, MD

As a resident, I had developed a commitment to patient care that sometimes meant I neglected other important components of my life and development as a physician. I got to work early, left late and frequently brought patient-related work home. Despite feeling that my significant other resented me for it, I unapologetically devoted myself to work. When I started fellowship, I carried many of these habits with me. In each meeting with my mentor during my first year of fellowship, we discussed my continued struggle to balance patient care and learning with personal relationships and needs.

My wellness activity and stress release has always been physical activity. During medical school and residency, my escape from work included activities like running, hiking, skiing and taking fitness classes. Last year, during my research year of fellowship, I decided to run my first marathon. When I needed a break from running, I signed up to participate in my first Spartan race (a race that combines various mileages with a number of obstacles). With the thrill of finishing that race came the desire to do more races, to get stronger, to train harder.

The success of finishing that race occurred simultaneously with a huge personal loss. I buried myself in work, and I worked out any chance I got. I isolated myself from friends, family and work colleagues. For the first time in my life, I really struggled to sleep and to eat. My breaking point came when I hurt someone close to me. In my depression and isolation, I made a decision that was disrespectful to one of my teachers and mentors, and to someone I consider to be a friend. I made a decision that could have harmed a patient.

That mistake and hurting someone else allowed me to see how self-destructive I was being. It allowed me to see that burying myself in work and pushing myself physically were not the tools I needed to take care of myself. It allowed me to finally ask for and accept help. I accepted help in the form of medication and therapy. I now meditate, albeit sporadically. Most importantly, I started telling people I was not OK. I leaned on the many people who care about me and support me. In admitting failure and accepting help, my recovery began, and I finally started to learn how to really take care of myself.

Katherine R. Tucker, MD, is a gynecologic oncology fellow at the University of North Carolina.