Last Updated: Sep 14, 2022
By Jon Lepley, DO
My decision to pursue a career in medicine was borne out of a desire to fix myself in equal measure with a desire to help others. I was very unhappy with my life when I applied to medical school. I possessed a naïve notion that becoming a physician, with the high income and prestige that I believed would follow, would remedy my discontent.
Upon realization of my goal, I quickly learned the pitfalls associated with conflating my career with my identity as a person. I took it very personally when patients had bad outcomes. I viewed my professional shortcomings as personal defects. My self-esteem worsened. I developed problems with addictive substances and contemplated suicide during my residency training.
The Pennsylvania Physicians Health Program offered a crucial lifeline to help me to address and resolve problems with substance use and self-harm. However, discovering a sense of purpose outside of the workplace did not come so easily. My job as a physician eventually acquired a sense of drudgery and I aspired to nothing. This malaise bled into my day-to-day life at home.
I discovered distance running during this period in my life. I embarked on a journey from sedentary lifestyle to one that involved continuous training and running six full marathons over the course of three years. The immediate benefit was that my work stressors suddenly seemed small measured against the challenge of running 26.2 miles. However, the most valuable reward was the acquisition of self-acceptance and gratitude.
Every marathon that I ran was a physical ordeal and a desperate challenge to make it to the finish line within the 6-hour course cut-off time. As much as I tried to improve and would have liked to be in the middle of the pack with average marathon runners, I needed to accept that my best effort involved finishing nearly last every time. My most effective tool for coping with pain and exhaustion during a race was to remind myself to be grateful that my family would be waiting for me at the finish line.
I don’t try to run marathons anymore, and my body appreciates that kindness. However, I still carry the self-acceptance and gratitude that I learned during those years into the workplace. When I receive constructive feedback about my job performance, I can acknowledge instances where I could have done better and accept my own limitations. When I find myself dissatisfied working as a physician, I find it helpful to remind myself to be grateful that I have such a privileged job in the first place.
Working as a physician might one day feel too much like the ordeal of running a marathon. If that day comes, I know I will be able to treat my mind and body with enough kindness to step back from that too. Being a physician is my job, and not core to my identity. The most important things in my life today exist outside of the workplace. For that, I am grateful.