I recently created a practice for myself, which is to think of three things for which I’m grateful. I do this when I find myself complaining, feeling discouraged, or getting annoyed. The beauty of this practice is how incredibly easy it is. I am never at a loss to find three things. The impact is remarkable and immediate – I feel more positive, less frustrated, and more aware of the world beyond my own problems.
The three things can be as small and mundane as the painted line on the road to guide you when you drive. They can be more major, like having a job where you get to do what you care about. Or they can be profound, like feeling connected to the people in your life. If you’re like me, you find it hard to think of the more lofty things in life, especially when things are stressful, annoying, or discouraging. So I keep it simple and stick to things right in front of me.
It goes something like this – I’m grateful to wake up in my safe and comfortable home. I’m grateful for the faint purple shade of sky peeking out behind the leafy trees in the morning. I’m grateful to have hands that function and can do amazing operations.
This practice of identifying things to be grateful for is a small tactic for getting through one’s day, but perhaps it means more than that for the busy academic surgeon. Many of us feel more pressure than ever from all sides – get more funding, publish more papers in better journals, generate more RVUs, reduce length of stay, increase patient satisfaction, expand the clinical enterprise. I doubt that I will lighten my load or find a way to accomplish more, but one thing I can do is to step back for a moment and notice all the good that I already have. The many things about being an academic surgeon that we may take for granted, but are profoundly valuable and something to be grateful for.
Surgery is a deeply physical and intimate profession, in which we use our hands to help others. Last week I did a bilateral DIEP flap breast reconstruction. I was exhausted and even a little sore at the end of the case. But this is the unique burden of being a surgeon that I’m willing to bear – we heal other people’s bodies using our own bodies. That physical ache the next day was a small reminder of the privilege I had the day before, of being a reconstructive microsurgeon. And yes, to do my job I use lots of cool tools and instruments, but ultimately what restores my patient’s body are my hands, eyes, mind, and heart. What an amazing thing and something to be grateful for.
Yesterday I had five meetings and two cases, so I ended up running back and forth between the College of Public Health and the Cancer Center multiple times. It certainly was a hassle, but then I thought about how grateful I was that the OR had given me time for my urgent cases. I was grateful that I could walk back and forth without pain or difficulty. I was grateful to be doing health services research with some of my favorite colleagues, and to be operating.
I like to think that this posture of gratitude has effects that spill over to my patients, colleagues, and acquaintances. Maybe I end up treating someone with just a little more gentleness, or give a more encouraging word to a student who is struggling with a paper. Maybe I’m even a little more present and grounded in the operating room and better able to employ best practices for quality and safety. Well, who knows if any of these effects exist, but if being a grateful surgeon means being a more contented person, then that’s certainly good enough for me.
Three things for which to be grateful — try it.
Clara Lee, MD, MPP, FACS