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The Week of the Pancreas: Finding a Work-Life Balance

I vividly remember one particular week during my medicine subinternship as the Week of the Pancreas. On the wards, I was caring for two patients with pancreatitis: one acute, one chronic. Then, I admitted a third patient with heretofore-undiagnosed metastatic pancreatic cancer. To top it all off, midweek, I received a phone call from one of my friends telling me that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Yes, he had a biopsy done. Yes, it had metastasized. Yes, he had his port placed. Oh, and chemotherapy starts next week.

A doctor comforting a patient who has received bad news

Before that week, I had fallen into the trap that many healthy, budding health care professionals do — there is “us” and “them.” “We” are healthy, immune from the burdens of disease. “They” are the people we take care of in the hospital, sick and in some way fundamentally different from “us.” “We” empathize with and provide the best care possible for “them,” but in the end, there is an unbreakable divide.

That day, my divide crumbled. My friend, someone who was one of “us,” was now one of “them” — and so was I. I was just as susceptible to disease as my patients were, as my friend was.

The rest of the week was, to put it lightly, hard, especially when caring for my patient with metastatic cancer. Earlier, I had sympathized with her; I had recognized she was in pain and been a pillar of support, staying late to talk to her family, checking in on her multiple times throughout the day. I had made sure she had good, if not excellent, care coordination.

But after my friend’s phone call, I had a better understanding of empathy — I understood and felt the pain of my patient and her loved ones. While I never cried in the room, I had moments in the workroom and during the drive home.

From that day, I put more effort into all my patients’ care. Calls home after discharge to ensure they knew about all their appointments wasn’t “above and beyond” care, but rather a new standard to which all my patients were entitled. Indeed, they were, and always are, entitled to everything I have to give in the hospital, everything I would want if it were me or my loved one in their place.

That wasn’t the only epiphany that phone call brought about. Yes, I am a medical student — but I’m also a daughter, a wife, a sister and a friend. I realized that I needed to live my actual life, not just be a perpetual student.

I didn’t have a good work-life balance. Ask my husband. I was constantly checking charts from home, and no 5:30 a.m. Sunday lab value was hidden from my ever-watchful eyes, even on my days off.

Since that week, I’ve actively been working on my work-life balance — and I think it’s safe to say I’ve improved. Even now, the weekend before finals, I’m proud to say my No. 1 priority is grabbing lunch and spending some quality time with my friend.