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Saved By Dance: One Doctor’s Story Of Burnout And Recovery

By Susan Biali, M.D.

Ten years ago, I was an emergency medicine resident and wanted to die. Today, I’m a general practitioner in part-time practice and in love with life. What made the difference? I signed up for a dance class.

Reports on physician burnout list the personality traits that set us up for trouble: we’re excessively conscientious, feel overly responsible, want to please everyone, and function on an extremely high level –- even if we’re overloaded, exhausted, or our personal life is falling apart. We burn out because we bend over backwards to help others, until something (like our minds or our health or our marriages) finally snaps. Now imagine this: what if we took some of that deep caring and hyper-responsibility, and turned it on ourselves?

When my depression hit bottom and I became a serious risk to myself and my patients, my chief resident asked me to take a stress leave. On impulse I went on a solo tropical vacation and one night at the resort, as I watched an exuberant group of salsa dancers burning up the stage, my eyes filled with tears. I suddenly remembered that when I was a little girl, I practiced incessantly in the basement to my ABBA records, preparing myself for the moment that I would live my dream and finally become a “Solid Gold Dancer.” That night, in that darkened tropical theater, I knew how I would save my life.

I went home, resigned from my residency, got my license to practice as a GP, and signed up for my first salsa dance class. With the same determination and drive that I used to plow through medical school, I took responsibility for my own wellness, focused on pleasing the child in me that wanted to play more, and set my sights on performing at a high level in non-medical areas of life, such as dancing, writing and friendship. I grabbed and held onto life – and threw away my antidepressants.

I never imagined that I’d end up with my own flamenco dance company in Mexico, commuting back and forth across the continent every couple of weeks in order to both dance and continue practicing medicine (as I did for the last four years), or that I would write a book, Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You about the lessons I learned about life and health during the process.

At work at the clinic, I’m still hyper-conscientious, double-checking medication doses and monitoring lab and X-ray results to ensure that nothing gets missed. Yet I’m even more vigilant about getting eight hours of sleep a night, eating three nutrient-rich meals a day, playing with my dog, laughing with my husband, and continuing to develop as a dancer.

I still fall off the wagon fairly regularly, putting too much energy into work and not enough into myself, until I catch myself or a minor health crisis, such as a cold or back injury, tells me I need to reevaluate my priorities. At the clinic, I do my best but have long stopped trying to be perfect. The other day, a new patient said to me: “You’re the most human doctor I have ever met.” Best compliment I ever got.

Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You.

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*


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