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Physician, Heal Thyself

By Dr. Suhyun An
Sep 19th, 2022

After evading it for more than two years, I thought I was in the clear — but I learned the hard way that I wasn’t. One day in early July, I took a test and found out the virus had finally come for me. The physical symptoms plus the positive result were undeniable: I had Covid.

I so wish I could say I had a “mild case” of it. But no. It hit me hard. Every nasty effect of Covid that epidemiologists have warned us about: Well, I suddenly had them all. Brain fog? Check. Body aches? Check. Chills and coughing and vomiting? Check, check, and check. Coughing fits kept me from sleeping for more than an hour. Any solid food I ingested, I vomited back up. I was very much bedridden. For a full month, I could barely think, let alone care for my two-year-old, let alone work. My staff, who’s been with me for more than ten years, were in disbelief. They had never seen me sick for more than 2 days max. “Are you really THAT sick, Dr. An??

I returned to the office to more than 9,000 emails and hundreds of unanswered text messages, many of them asking me, “are you ok??” Some asked, “why did it hit you so hard?

The fact is, though, my getting sick was actually a long time coming — because I hadn’t been taking good care of myself.

Ever wondered why, when a group of people gets exposed to a virus, some end up getting very sick while others don’t catch the disease at all? The difference often has to do with the resilience of our individual bodies and immune systems. People whose bodies are well-fed, well-rested, and well-maintained are the least likely to get sick because their immune systems are strong and at the ready to ward off would-be invaders. People who haven’t been as good to themselves, however — people who are run-down or stressed out — are conversely at the highest risk of falling ill.

If I’m being honest, I was in this latter category of people when I came down with Covid. I’d been busy trying to take care of too many things for too many hours every day, overworking myself for close to two years. I’d kept myself going by fueling myself with caffeine and unhealthy food— which is to say my adrenals were shot and my daily diet in shambles. I wasn’t exercising nearly enough. During this time, my blood tests showed signs that I was headed into pre-diabetic mode. And having a two-year-old toddler who is a mega-charged ball of energy…I don’t really have much time other than working and taking care of my daughter, and self-care has taken to the very bottom of my priority list.

How we treat ourselves and our bodies matter a lot, especially when we’re in the midst of a pandemic. As a doctor, I knew this to be true — but I still failed to take adequate care of myself. I pushed myself too hard when I knew I needed rest, and I procrastinated on taking care of my body’s needs in lieu of squeezing a little more productivity out of each day.

And I ended up paying the price for it. In the end, my body forced me to slow down — or, more accurately, come to a standstill — and rest for many weeks.

I’m far from alone in this. Many of us, and many women especially, have a tendency to neglect ourselves in the service of helping others. We tend to put caring for our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends before caring for ourselves. We have a habit of putting our work, our colleagues, our patients, and our clients ahead of our own needs too.

Yet it’s essential to care for ourselves first if we’re to truly care for others. Remember those announcements at the beginning of flights cautioning passengers to put masks on themselves first before helping others with theirs? This advice is apt off the airplane too. We always need to make sure we ourselves are well first, so we are in good shape to support the other people in our lives.

Since that tough summer of Covid, I’ve dramatically changed the way I prioritize my time. I make sure I get the rest and sleep I need. I’ve overhauled my eating habits to make sure I’m getting the right nutrients. And I’ve stopped overworking because I know I won’t be doing my clinic or patients any good if I run myself down again.

All of those changes let me start this fall in a healthier, happier place. And I want to make sure that I — and you — remain in good health as we head into late fall and the winter holidays, a time when many of us experience an upsurge in responsibilities as we prepare for family gatherings and festivities.

We can’t control the next phase of the pandemic or the next variant of the Coronavirus. But one thing we can do is take steps to support our health even during challenging times. So I’d like to encourage you to take the time now to conduct a personal audit.

Ask yourself: How are you feeling? Are you eating, exercising, and sleeping for optimum health? Do you have balance in your life? Are you getting adequate breaks and rest?

What will you do this month to take good care of yourself?

PS – The elevated A1C freaks me out. I didn’t have this child, only to die early from the complications of diabetes. I have taken very aggressive actions to nip this in the bud. More on this in the next letter.

Dr. An.

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