Everybody needs a vacation, even your doctor

A couple weeks ago, I saw a patient I’ve known for 15 years. She’s a petite middle-aged woman, blond hair flowing over her shoulders and bright blue eyes lighting up the room. I enjoy our chats and catching up with her life at annual visits  – she is a professor at a nearby college and I love to hear her latest research in the field of women’s studies. Because she takes care of herself with regular exercise and other healthy habits, her health needs are minimal. But every year without fail, she comes, her bright smile greeting me as I enter the exam room.

On this particular visit, besides her usual “Hi, how are you?” she has something else on her mind. She greets me with, “I hope you never retire because I never want to see another doctor.” Followed by “make sure you take vacations. I’ve read that doctors don’t take enough breaks and they get burned out. I don’t want that to happen to you.” Wow. How sweet that she thought of me. I was really touched. I joked with her that I was 10 years her senior, so I could retire while she still had health needs. But then I added, “ it just happens that I do have a vacation coming up in a couple weeks that is strictly R & R.” The rest of the day just floated by as I began anticipating a vacation I did need with my husband, away from work and even away from my children, to rest and recharge.

But this is what sometimes happens when I go on vacation…

I was at Detroit Metro airport, waiting at my gate to California and I saw a pregnant woman waving at me. What were the odds that one of my patients is on my flight? Well, apparently, good. She was 7 months pregnant and so happy to have me on her flight “just in case.”  Of course, she had no issues on the flight, but I found myself “on call” until we reached LA.

Flying to New Zealand from Michigan is a long journey. Detroit to Chicago to LA to Auckland. The last leg, LA to Auckland is 12 hours over water. I had dreamed about going to New Zealand for years and finally it was going to be a reality. Although I was excited for this trip, the flight seemed like a nightmare. For the last and longest leg, I planned carefully to make myself comfortable. I put on sweats, took out my contacts, took a Xanax, hoping to sleep those 12 hours away.

As soon as I started to doze off though, there was an announcement “is there a doctor on the flight?” Seriously, now?! I waited a moment, hoping someone else would come forward. Besides, the way I looked, I couldn’t imagine anyone would believe I was a doctor. No one stood up. Another announcement, “is there a doctor on board?” On a plane, there is not much a doctor can do. There are barely any medical supplies, so essentially we are asked to evaluate the person to determine if they need to make an emergency landing for medical reasons. But we were over the Pacific Ocean! I looked around again and slowly got up from my seat. As I walked towards the flight attendant, I was joined by another passenger-doctor. Together we approached the passenger that was having issues – a 16 year old who was given a sleep aid by his parents and now was not responding to his parents trying to wake him (why wake a sleeping baby?? I don’t know…). He was breathing, had a normal heart rate, just in a deep sleep. All was well and after reassurances, I went back to my seat. Alas, now I was wide awake, left with only 1 more Xanax for the flight home, trying to find a movie to pass the many hours left on the flight.

It is not uncommon, during the course of my day, for me to run into a patient. Likely settings are busy places like the grocery store, the movies, or even the airport. But, occasionally, it is in the most remote, unsuspecting location. When my children were fairly young, we went to Northern Michigan with a group of friends, “camping” in cabins. All the kids wanted to climb the infamous Sleeping Bear Dunes. It’s about a 1.5 mile hike from the parking lot to Lake Michigan, up and down sand dunes, with an estimated 2 hour hike time. Some of the dunes are huge, like the first climb out of the parking lot. And the rest are more undulating, but deep enough to block your view over the next dune. The hike is difficult, not only because of the sand, but the constant sun without any shade in sight. Despite occasional trail markers, you are pretty much guessing where to go, zig zagging along the dunes, making the hike much longer than the 1.5 mile claim.

In no time, I had lost my kids. They went running off in excitement. However, I had the water and snacks. Occasionally I would see a glimmer of them, but really, it could have been a mirage with so many kids running around the dunes. Eventually, and I mean 2 hours later eventually, we made it to the lake that lie beyond the dunes and I found my kids. Phew! But by this time, they were pretty whiny from dehydration and hunger. And we still had to hike back! Slowly, ever so slowly, with shouts of “I can’t walk anymore!” and “carry me!” and other such whinery, we make our way back. On the top of one of the dunes, my two kids just collapsed, threatening to never get up unless carried. While I’m contemplating my next maneuver to goad them on, an Indian woman with her 2 children and husband come up to me. “Are you a gynecologist?” Me, sweaty, hair flying everywhere, clothes a mess, yelling at my kids, a gynecologist??  “Why yes,” I stammered in my disheveled state. She smiled, “you delivered my 2 children.” and pushed them towards me proudly. Somewhat shocked, I smiled back, enjoying the moment in the most crazy of locations.

And so it goes, wherever I am, I never cease to be a doctor. Sometimes when I’m “off,” I receive texts or calls or emails from family, friends or patients because they need something “doctory” that they feel I can help them with.  Honestly, I am glad I can be of help (well, maybe not so much at 2am, police knocking at my door because I didn’t answer my phone when a friend of mine was in labor, but that’s another story). It is usually just a few minutes of my time, but it could mean so much to another. Being a doctor is a life, not a job. There is never a day off from life.



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