Turning Into The WavesApr 12, 2022
Written by Revitalize co-founder, Dr. Andrea Austin, MD.
I generally don’t like to go to the same vacation location twice. It’s a big world and with limited time on this earth to explore, I find it’s best to go somewhere new. Yet, at the end of Feb 2022, I felt a familiar feeling of exhaustion. I had survived another COVID-19 surge of working as an emergency doctor during the pandemic. While a beach vacation is far from an instant cure from burnout, I do find it a helpful as part of recovery from an intense period of work.
I only had 4 nights available, thus I knew it would be important to minimize travel time and maximize relaxation. While I really enjoy the Caribbean, from the West coast, the flights would eat into my relaxation time. Thankfully, Hawaii is a great option from San Diego, and direct flights are back to all the islands, including Kauai. I went to Kauai in August of 2019 with my husband Chris. We did all the recommended Kauai recreational activities, including seeing the Napali coast from the air (helicopter tour), sea (Catamaran tour) and land (hike).
This time, I wanted to stay put at my resort and spend ample time sleeping in, reading, writing, and lounging on the beach. This combination of activities is restorative for me. It nourishes my mind and I find mental clarity on a host of personal and professional issues. I like to go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up with the sunrise. I feel my body clock return to the natural circadian rhythm, a welcome restoration from my emergency medicine mixed up body clock.
I stayed at the exact same resort, purposefully. I knew it had a great beach with a bay that had calm waters that allowed for paddle boarding, one of my favorite water activities. After a luxurious day of lounging on the beach, I decided to end my afternoon with a paddle.
Changed from the last time I stayed at this resort; the paddle board rental was on the opposite side of the bay. This side of the bay had higher waves, and the only way to get on the board was to walk out to about waste deep and hop on. I’ve been paddling for the last 11 years, primarily in San Diego, and I pride myself on not getting wet. I usually walk out to knee deep and easily hop on my board. Being drenched starting my paddle made me laugh. It was good to already be wet, now it was no big deal if I feel off my board. Was this my perfectionism creeping into my paddling, and how often does it sour my shifts in the emergency department?
As I began paddling, waves were coming at me. I immediately had to drop to my knees to prevent falling off the board. With paddle boarding, the goal is to stand, but you’re more stable on your knees. I was a little annoyed that I had to drop to my knees, and a moment later, I thought I should be a little kinder to myself. I usually paddle in a smooth bay in San Diego, it’s not surprising that I needed some time to adjust to these waves. Could I show a little more self-compassion off my board at work too?
As I reached the calmer side of the bay, I stood up and paddled quickly and easily. I got into a good rhythm and my mind began to wander. As I looked out at the bay, I thought about how different I was when I was paddling here a little under two years ago. In 2019, I was still in the Navy. I had no idea I was about to go through a pandemic as an emergency doctor and be put the greatest test of my career. It would be a grueling test of my physical and mental stamina. But now, as I rode the waves, I knew I was a very different person and stronger.
A few minutes later, a wave came. I turned directly into to ride it. With paddle boarding, it’s easier to ride the wave when you face it. It’s harder if you try to avoid it, and typically it ends with you ending up in the water, or at least knocked down to your knees. This reminded me so much of so many things that had happened during the pandemic. I tried so hard to bottle so many difficult emotions, for me, grief, and sadness. I kept turning away from the messy emotions, when I what I really needed to do, was turn into them.
A few minutes later, the water looked calm. I relaxed and again my mind wandered. A sneaky wave came up and I nearly fell into the water! I didn’t though. I realized what happened. My body reacted to the wave before my mind. My feet made micro adjustments, along with my core that kept me upright. This was turning into a rather weird paddle board session, as the overlaps between this day on the board and riding the waves of the pandemic were increasingly clear to me. My body is constantly sending me signals and knows what I need before my mind does. Could I trust my body more and honor what it needs, like nourishing food and hydration on shift?
As came back to shore, I looked down to see if I was in a spot shallow enough to hop off. I misjudged, and I went straight under the water. As I came up, hair fully wet now, I laughed. Could I hold onto this playful amusement when I return to the emergency department? Sure, it’s not all fun and games, but could I approach the non-life and death hiccups with a gentle humor?
In the end, I’m incredibly grateful that I listened to my body and picked an easy, nourishing vacation. It led to many quiet moments in which I had the time and space to work through some of the hard moments of this pandemic. Returning to the same place as I had visited pre-pandemic helped me gain perspective on who I was and who I am becoming.
Nearly all healthcare workers have experienced at least post traumatic symptoms related to COVID-19. While post-traumatic stress symptoms and disorder top the headlines, I hope you’ll take some time to learn about post traumatic growth. The trauma of the pandemic changed us; we will never be who we were before. It is up to us though, how we process and how we construct our lives going forward. As this phase of the pandemic lifts, I hope you’ll take some time to rest and reflect on who you were and who you’re becoming. At Revitalize Women Physician Circle, we’re here to help you on that journey. Reach out today to schedule a free, personal consultation.
This blog was originally posted on andreaaustinmd.com.