by Dr Carrie Kollias MD FRCSC
“Did you always plan on becoming a children’s author?”
This was a question recently posed to me by a group of teachers and librarians. We were discussing my recently published children’s book, Maria’s Marvelous Bones.
The short answer was “No”, but the real answer is much more complex.
Ten years ago, as an orthopaedic resident, I got the idea to write a kids’ book to help explain fractures. But other priorities came first: I finished residency, the Royal College exam, fellowships, and started community practice. I had two kids. I became involved in health advocacy where I experienced some victories but many frustrations, often due to the health-care bureaucracy that demoralizes many of us over time.
About 18 months ago, I decided to finally write that kids’ book. By then, my own kids were asking questions about my job. With celebrated UK illustrator Gill Guile, we featured a group of health-care professionals diverse in both gender and ethnicity.
Since the book’s publication, readers have told me how it’s changing kids’ perceptions: a 10-year-old girl who snuck anatomy books to bed at night to read with a flashlight; a boy who approached his treatment with confidence after breaking his leg; a girl who declared she wanted to be an “astronaut surgeon,” and a boy who now eats broccoli because it is good for his bones. Small but meaningful victories. Fortunately, Maria’s Marvelous Bones made the top of the fiction best seller list in Calgary. So yes, bones really ARE cool!
This project has fulfilled me both personally and professionally. This, we know, is important: the physician health literature indicates that spending at least 20% of our time doing high meaning professional activity is associated with lower rates of burnout1. This means that if your highest meaning activity is teaching, or administration, or research, or even performing a specific surgery, you should aim to allocate a minimum of 20% of your work schedule to that area.
What goals do you have in the next 18 months? This may mean pioneering a surgery nationally or in your centre, stepping up for a leadership role, focusing on your own health, mentoring a colleague, building a marriage or learning to surf. Many of us however, exist on a professional hamster wheel day to day, spinning along with little intentionality. We mindlessly grind through patient waitlists. Sometimes it feels like we have no choice in a system where resources and patient access can be scarce. Large personal financial commitments can force us to run along at too rapid a pace. For others, we are living a version of ‘malignant’ intentionality: single-mindedly climbing ladders of power and influence with not enough regard for the wellbeing of our family, our colleagues, or our own health.
I often think of my colleague, Spencer McLean, M.D., FRCSC, who passed away with aggressive kidney cancer in 2013 at the end of his orthopaedic surgery residency in Calgary. Spencer lived intentionally: with kindness, appreciation, generosity, love for family, nature and orthopaedics. On the day of Spencer’s funeral, I recall sitting across the table from my colleague; we were absolutely shell-shocked. We were early in our careers, with the sacrifices of residency still fresh in our minds. We talked about how to honour our colleague’s memory. We hung a picture of Spencer, given to us by his wife Christina, in our office. In this way, Spencer continues to inspire us to pursue a life that is deliberate. We remember that each day is a gift.
As surgeons, we go through seasons professionally and personally. Along the way, it is important to critically evaluate: does the way we are living and practicing align with our personal values? For those of us who have never explored this, online tools are available2. For those of us who already know what our values are, we may need a reminder. Living with intentionality can require uncomfortable choices like sacrificing income, prestige, or even ego. It might mean writing a kids’ book, collaborating more with colleagues, or reconciling with others. As any health-care professional knows, we have no guarantee of good health, nor of the years we will get. We need to think about how to make every one of them count.
Special thanks to Christina Frangou
This article originally appeared in Canadian Orthopaedic Association Bulletin Winter 2018
- Shanafelt T.D., West C.P., Sloan J.A., et al. Career fit and burnout among academic faculty. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(10): 990-995.
- Personal Values Assessment https://www.valuescentre.com/our-products/products-individuals/personal-values-assessment-pva