Trekking the route of the forest fire

The surgical fellow just two weeks shy of completing his nine-years of medical training sat across from me. His eyes vacant and looking down, he spoke in a detached way, as if describing someone other than himself:

“My body feels like rubber… I feel nothing but dread… I can’t imagine ever feeling joy again.”

Educari – the root of the word education means to make whole… I wonder how we have come so far from its original intent. I wish I could say the experience of this fellow is a rare occurrence, that it is an anomaly, and that our medical training produces healthy and whole physicians. I also wish I could say that the environments where our physicians are practicing cultivate and support their health and their joy in the practice of medicine. This is not the case, and it is delusional to think so.

Physician burnout is threatening the foundation of the U.S. medical healthcare system.The costs—in addition to physicians’ lives—are quality of care, safety of patients, treatment outcomes, patient satisfaction, nurse turnover, hospital staff morale, and financial performance. Physician burnout truly is threatening the very foundation of the U.S. health care system.

What can be done? Where should we start? The task seems daunting, overwhelming. The environments are set up to suck the soul; the individuals sell their souls as if they are unaware that there is another choice.

At a time like this, I remember my father’s admonitions:  Whenever you are at a crossroads (or in Courage language “whenever you find yourself in a tragic gap”) do three things:

    1. Go into nature
    2. Create a community
    3. Let your heart speak

And that is what we did – twelve physicians, an 11,000+ ft. range in Colorado, and the invitation to retreat, renew, and nurture leadership from the inside out.

Physician Leaders - Flat Top Wilderness (group)

As we faced the mountain at the base and began our journey up, the vastness and greatness of the mountain overtook us. We felt small in a most honoring way. Every step reminded us of our small place in a great universe – the landscape recovering from the devastating 2002 forest fire; nature’s defiance as it returns again and again; the amazing wildlife; and the enormity of the mountain itself.

The hike begins in the Flat Top Wilderness

As the oxygen became scarcer and our physical stamina was challenged, we began to take turns helping and encouraging the ones who were struggling. Those who were able carried others’ packs, slowed down to support one another, and pulled together as a team. The spirit was contagious and the motto was: “Leave no one behind.” We were going to make it as a team no matter how long or what it took.

Thanks to the water carriers

We all made it safely to our base camp, where we established our Circle of Trust and spent the Memorial weekend around a fire, blanketed by a carpet of stars and listening to the wild in us and around us. This Circle of Trust continuing medical education course was an invitation to begin to recover the “rubber bodies” and the “deserted souls.” No cell phones, no PowerPoints, no lectures or tests – just a Circle of Trust and the courage to dream that we, too, could recover from the devastation and return to our true selves again.

This one experience won’t change medical education or medicine practice in a significant way. Not yet, anyway. But, this small group of doctors might just continue to defy the “ecological disaster” that threatens the very foundation of their wellbeing; inspired by nature’s vulnerability and resiliency, they may just choose to sustain renewal.

We returned from this wilderness experience having understood like never before some most basic truths about being human:

  • We are indeed a small part of this great universe;
  • There is a wholeness in each of us and we can begin to recover it; and
  • We are powerfully and amazingly strong; capable of achieving great heights when we create a community for the journey.

Herdley Paolini, Ph.D. is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator who works with healthcare professionals. She is also Co-Program Director for Health and Health Care at the Center for Courage & Renewal, a licensed psychologist, and author of the 2009 book, Inside the Mind of a Physician.

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