White as a cloud on a full sunny day.
Crisp as a freshly-laundered sheet.
Pure as the touch of a newborn.
These were the sensations that washed over me as I felt the edges of my new white coat, which had just been given to me in the White Coat Ceremony. It was the autumn of 1997. It was just a short white coat because I was still a medical student. Still, it was exhilarating to feel the material, smell the freshness, and see my name in cursive blue above the right breast pocket. This was my first step on the path toward mending, healing, and curing. Or so I thought.
During the ceremony, the first-year medical students were inducted into the world of medicine by reciting the Hippocratic oath. The line that resonated with me the most was the following: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.”[i]
When I look back on that day, I remember feeling a sense of innocent, optimistic empowerment. Over the years, this sense of empowerment would be replaced by realistic, pessimistic downtrodden-ness. Before medical school, I had envisioned a Norman Rockwell–painting utopia in which doctors spent time connecting with patients. Instead, the reality was a George Orwell–flavored dystopia in which doctors were cogs in a machine with no decent time for connecting with patients.
As the weight of a medical system that didn’t value connection grew, my burnout festered like an open sore. The pus of feeling like a glorified bookkeeper in a system of endless paperwork and non-patient-related tasks oozed out of me slowly, day by day. What could I do about the situation? I couldn’t change a healthcare system that valued perverse economic health incentives over patient care. Yet, I could improve the communication inside my own clinical office. Thus began my quest to improve the physician-patient bond through improved communication. Little did I know that my answer would be found in the world of comedy.
So, did I become a professional comedian? Nope. And that’s ok. Because that was never my goal. Frankly, I’m pretty hooked. What I garnered from my comedic education was more than I could have expected. At its heart, the true beauty of comedy isn’t in making people laugh but in connecting with an audience.
Comedy proved to be not just a communication exercise but a healing one. What started out as a journey to improve communication within an office setting became a much deeper journey toward healing a burned-out shell of a physician. While I may not be a professional comedian or a renowned physician coach, I sincerely believe that in sharing my journey, I can help my fellow physicians who feel downtrodden, disenfranchised, and disenchanted by the weight of this medical system. Unless one has walked in the shoes of a shattered physician, it’s hard to understand the swamp, which can swallow a physician whole.
Physicians are a particular breed. Many people see us as lucky because our job provides a stable, decent income. But we ultimately carry the burden of treating a human being’s most precious resource: health. Couple this responsibility with a broken healthcare system—physicians face a hefty load indeed.
In the first section of this book, we’ll delve into physician burnout. First, I’ll relate my personal loss of faith in medicine. Then, we’ll look at the greater burden of burnout within the overall community of physicians. I used to think I was singular in my affliction. However, I later learned that physician burnout is rampant.
In the second section of the book, I’ll share my comedy journey, as I wandered from a simple writing competition into improvisation, stand-up comedy, and comedic writing. Given that I’m a reserved introvert, my travels through comedy stretched me further than I could have imagined.
In the final section of the book, we’ll look at the everlasting imprints my comedic travels left on me. I want to impart to my fellow healthcare providers the lessons that helped me defeat burnout.
So, let’s begin down the path on which comedy and medicine intertwine to heal the healer.
[i] “Hippocratic Oath,” Wikipedia, last modified January 5th, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath.