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Not Easy, but Worth It: Dr. Melissa McNeil’s Life Lessons

Categories  |  Practice Tools

 |  By Rebecca Andrews, MD, FACP

I attended an inspirational talk given by the Distinguished Professor in Women’s Health award winner, Dr. Melissa McNeil, at the Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) annual conference. Dr. McNeil gave the proverbial work-life balance talk with a unique perspective, which she called “Life Lessons Learned.” As a primary care physician, a mom, and a person with too many interests to count, balancing my life seems like a constant transfer of time from one area to another.  I think her points are excellent in general, but especially for primary care providers who are trying to survive the mountain of paperwork and patient needs.

Here is a synopsis of Dr. McNeil’s main points, along with my reflections:

  1. Pick your passion. Ignore the “shoulds” and “coulds” of life and do what you want.  Life is short, so spend it doing something you enjoy.  If I had been given this advice earlier in my career, I would have had fewer sleepless nights deciding between what I “should” want and what I really wanted.  As physicians, we are taught to achieve the highest level, but there is often no instruction on how to choose what we really desire.
  2. When someone knocks on the door, at least open it.  You don’t have to go through it, but you owe it to yourself to open the door and see what is waiting on the other side. Give yourself the permission to look without committing.
  3. Get the right people on the bus. Who you do your work with is just as important, if not more, than what you do.  It is the people that make it enjoyable. A sense of community is crucial for a productive environment, as well as for your own sense of fulfillment.  Ask about your staff’s lives, and offer support when they have struggles.
  4. Avoid the “mommy wars”.  I loved this point.  If you are not familiar with the mommy wars, let me explain. It is an awful competition that moms sometimes get into about who works harder, who is more dedicated, and who spends more time with their kids.  I am not sure if dads have an equivalent, but this is one of the most destructive behaviors I have witnessed and, at times, been a part of.  My favorite line of the talk was, “Be generous in your understanding of others”.  We work in a field that takes so much from us: our time, our empathy, our commitment to others before ourselves, delayed gratification through years of school, and so much more.  Why compete?  Better to celebrate and help each other.
  5. Balance in life is not a static state, but rather a dynamic concept that requires reevaluation.  The push and pull between work and home make life interesting.  But it’s important to take the time to reexamine in order to maintain a healthy balance. 
  6. Family is a gift.  Dr. McNeil spoke several times about the need to “be intentional”.  About being present.  About making memories. Little moments produce great rewards.  Her example related to the snow days that were a hassle on the whole east coast this year.  Taking just a few hours to enjoy a snow day with your family can leave a lasting impression.
  7. Make your efforts count twice.  Weave patient care projects into academic presentations and collaborations with others.  Similarly, coaching my kids’ soccer team is a huge time commitment, but it counts more than twice because I get to exercise, spend time with my kids, give back to my community, and view my kids from a new angle (and the reverse).  At the end of each practice, we go home tired but very content.
  8. Time is valuable and, frankly, worth more than gold. So give yourself permission to have a housekeeper, a handyman, or whatever gives you more time to do what you love. I have had a nanny since I returned to work when my youngest was only seven weeks old.  She is worth every cent I pay her.  She allows me to go to work and know my kids are taken care of, loved, and safe.  She makes or buys cookies for school events, she cooked for me during my experimental month as a vegan, and she has taught me to give myself a break. 
  9. Traditions can be great. Make them.  Traditions don’t need to be complicated.  Some of the favorite traditions I have with my kids are listing of our highs and lows at night, Sunday night family meeting (my kids especially love this opportunity to tell me where I can improve), our “Is it real?” competition with TV infomercials, 4th of July fireworks, and soup and sandwich night (aka I forgot to prepare something for dinner).

Some of Dr. McNeil’s lessons might resonate more than others.  I hope you will comment and share your own.  I leave one other life lesson, drawn from a quote my mother sent me:

If you want to leave a legacy ... leave it now, every day of your life, not just after you are gone or only as a result of a narrowly defined way of contributing. With every thought, word and deed you leave something behind. You get to choose whether you leave a legacy of impossibility or possibility, of denigration or celebration, of unkindness or kindness, of judgment or acceptance, of struggle or grace, of discouragement or encouragement, of frailty or strength, of tears or laughter, of fear or love. What is in your heart to leave as a legacy, in this moment ... and now this one?  ~ Cathy Drew, Poet

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