When I graduated dental school, I should have been fresh faced, bright eyed, and full of enthusiasm and optimism about my future, instead I was jaded, exhausted, turned off from learning and in debt up to my eyeballs. Despite the fact that I needed to be earning some cash I decided to take a couple of months break before looking for work as I was so worn out after the pressures of over 5 years of intense study that is required getting a dental degree.
Its sad to look back and see myself so flat when this should have been a pinnacle of achievement, after all I had wanted to be a dentist since I was 13 years old and here I was fulfilling my dream, yet I could only feel relieved that I had made it through and that Uni was now behind me.
When I started my degree I was just 18, healthy, fit, and full of life. I would describe myself as happy-go-lucky and fairly at ease with life, I didn’t smoke, would have the occasional drink, ate well and didn’t really like coffee and generally took good care of myself. By the end of my first term at dental school, however, I was already struggling to cope with the volume of learning, the constant exams, the competitive nature of my fellow students and living away from home fending for myself while trying to manage a meagre budget. My health was starting to suffer, I was tired and stressed, eating on the run and drinking way too much coffee and alcohol, my body was breaking out in boils and I seemed to have a constant cold.
The pressure was relentless, exams every 6 weeks that you had to pass or you were gone. More learning than there seemed hours in the day and then from second year patients to see and treat which brought a whole new level of responsibility to deal with. Add to that only 6 weeks holiday a year (no luxury of long University breaks for us medical and dental students) and the never-ending battle to complete the required number of procedures before the end of 5th year so that you would be allowed to go on to take your final exams and you had a recipe for disaster.
The only way I could cope was to push myself beyond my limits, drinking excessive coffee during the day and alcohol at night to “manage” my stress levels and unwind after a tough day. Tired, I would find myself eating doughnuts at my breaks (the ladies at the dental school coffee bar would even put my doughnut supply to one side so as not run out when I came for a coffee – that’s how bad it had gotten!) and a family pack of biscuits after dinner while I did a few hours study before going the pub and drinking myself to oblivion so I could get some sleep and do it all again the next day.
If you complained about the intensity, you were told to suck it up, as if you couldn’t cope here you would never make it in the real world. And so was the attitude of the teaching staff, not really supportive or offering a way in which to better deal with the requirements of the course or come to think of it life beyond it.
It comes then as no surprise then that upon graduation many dentists and doctors continue on in the same vein, pushing themselves hard to complete their workload of patients and administrative tasks, competing with their colleagues instead of reaching out for support, advice and guidance, coping with stress and exhaustion with caffeine and alcohol and neglecting themselves and their own health. And sadly we are somehow expected to be super-human and be able to deal with all this as we have the cursory title Doctor before our names.
But what gets forgotten and overlooked is that first and foremost we are people, many of us very sensitive and deeply caring individuals, who also need support and nurturing and to be shown how we can not only deliver what we need for our patients but most crucially also for ourselves. For if we don’t truly know how to care for ourselves and maintain that happy-go-lucky fresh faced enthusiasm and love of what we do and the people we are supposedly caring for then what quality of service are we truly offering? What type of role model do we become when our words are empty, tainted by the do as I say not as I do energy that comes from delivering words that are not lived and shown by example, after-all who is going to take advice from an overweight worn out doctor, that would be like getting financial advice from a bankrupt.
Sure, there are many Universities and continuing education courses on offer now that provide teachings in self care, espousing the importance of looking after our wellbeing and whilst this is a welcome step in the right direction I can but only wonder if it goes far enough – are we simply putting a Band-Aid over a wound rather than preventing the wound from developing in the first place.
The fault here lies not in the Universities, the course curriculums, or even, that as doctors people don’t always see us as people, but that life and our education system do not equip us to know how to genuinely care for ourselves on a deeper level. A level that supports us to connect to ourselves and know who we are, to be able to value and care for ourselves naturally and lovingly so and thus live in a way that provides a quality of vitality and energy that supports us to be less affected by life.