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Burnout Recovery: Permission to Pivot

Original version published on KevinMD 

In 2013, I commissioned into the Air Force, selected to become an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon and would soon embark on my residency journey to get there. I was stoked as I finally felt I was living the path I had worked so hard to craft out for myself. Pinch me.

Up until this point, my educational path was linear. I committed to dental school during my first year in undergrad after I was accepted into a fast track 3:4 program which meant that I would complete 3 years of undergrad followed by 4 years of dental school. At age 18, I had mentally committed to a career trajectory for the rest of my life.

As I entered dental school, I would start to feel twinges of doubt. I began to question the career trajectory, and I was reassured that it was likely my self-confidence talking.

I continued dental school, and I found myself attracted to Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (OMFS). I loved the ability to advance my medical training, and I envisioned the life changing surgeries that I would be able to perform for individuals. I stayed in dentistry thinking that I would be happier when I was in OMFS residency and the Air Force.... an illusion commonly referred to as the "arrival fallacy."

After dental school, I commissioned into the Air Force and moved to TX. I remember receiving the phone call that I would be moving to TX, it came on a cold winter day in IL, and I was filled with joy.

However, the tides would turn. During my time in TX, I rotated as a subintern in the Air Force OMFS residency in preparation for my future residency. Soon, I would learn of my sensitivities to prolonged sleep deprivation paired with high stress duties, and I fell deep into depression- and what I know understand as burnout. Feeling like I was the only one struggling, I began to accept that the career path I had worked so hard to obtain was likely not the path for me. I met with members of the Air Force OMFS board to discuss my doubts, and we ended up agreeing that maybe my civilian program would be a better fit for me. Maybe it was the program, and not the career. Maybe it’ll be better when…

The arrival fallacy would continue- I thought- maybe it will be better when I am in my own program that I had selected through the Match process and no longer a "subintern." As I embarked on my residency journey in my amazing program, it would be solidified- it wasn't the program. It was the career.

I fell into a deeper depression and thought I had two options- I could either continue residency or end my life. I could not think of an alternative option. Between the development of severe depression and the pressures of making a misstep that would end my medical/dental career, I could not see that there were so many other options.

Thankfully, I had an amazing Psychologist who could challenge my mindset, keep me safe, and support me through decisions that would both save my life and change the trajectory in a way that has been a much better fit for me. Thankfully, I was surrounded by individuals in my program and medical school who saw me as a person first and were devoted to making sure I felt compassion and not guilt for considering a career pivot. I am extremely grateful for the individuals who gave me permission to pivot when I was committed to trying to force through the grind. I am extremely grateful for the individuals who helped me see options C-Z when I was stuck perseverating on A and B.

Valuable lessons learned- if you are stuck between options A and B, and neither seem ideal - step back, and consider C-Z. And if those aren’t enough, then look into another alphabet. There are always more options than you think. Sometimes, we need to give ourselves permission to pivot.

Also- If you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, please ask for help. Professional therapy and a supportive community were essential components of my burnout recovery journey. I am amazed at how the brain may think when not okay. Please surround yourself with supportive people that can help you see when the world seems dark.

During my darkest times, I did not realize how many other people were also struggling... I looked around, and everyone looked fine. I must be the problem, I thought... a burden I carried with me until I started writing publicly about my journey 5 years after I transferred from OMFS residency. If that sounds like you- please know you're not alone, and please swap out any guilt with endless self-compassion.

Nothing in your career is more important than your life. Nothing. <3

,Much Love


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