It’s sometimes hard to answer the question, “What kind of doctor are you?” I resist the temptation to answer, “a good one, I hope.” Instead, I explain that I care for patients with vein disorders but am also a physician coach, working with doctors who wish to be happier or more effective in their lives and practices. And, I teach first and second year medical students. “What do you teach them?” is usually the next question. That’s also difficult to answer. I teach about communication, ethics, the doctor-patient relationship, the interaction of culture and medical care, healthcare systems – lots of things. Almost as valuable, I teach how to remain sane and get through medical school. While there are many challenging situations in life, medical school is definitely the most demanding one that most students have faced. Even to my current group of students who have overcome significant obstacles in their lives, the enormous amount of information they are expected to master in a very short time, the long hours, constant insecurity, and lack of sufficient feedback feels daunting. And then add two more complicating factors – the realization of the grave consequences if they do not become competent, and the fact that most medical students tend to be perfectionistic and have extremely high standards for themselves. When students don’t meet their expectations, even during a practice session, they begin to wonder if they will ever be successful. I know I’ve felt that way many times.
For many years during my training, I could not remember to consider a blood clot as a possible diagnosis for a patient with calf pain. Each time I forgot to include it in my list, I became irritated with myself. A dear friend had a simple answer when I would share my frustrations. I would exclaim, “how much longer am I going to keep doing this?” and she would shrug her shoulders and reply, “until you don’t.” One day, when a patient had pain in his calf, it occurred to me that it could be a blood clot. It was as simple as that. It’s ironic that I now treat patients with blood clots, so it’s a diagnosis that immediately pops into my head. None of my frustration with myself nor any of the insults I tossed around in my head did much to help me remember. I just had to keep trying to remember until I did.
In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey offers a metaphor that can help us have the patience and trust we need as we try to learn and improve. “When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”
One of the many things I love about coaching and teaching is helping each person I work with to see themselves as that rose – perhaps not as fully blossomed as they wish they were, but with all the potential to be so if they continue to seek, learn, practice and grow. In what parts of your life are you a rose seed, or perhaps an early shoot or bud? Can you look at your process with the anticipation that you might feel when planting a seed? What do you need to help you blossom fully?