Ending the unwritten rule
Tyree Winters, DO P
Pediatrician, Morristown, NJ
Tyree Winters, DO, wanted to be a physician since he was five, with a great desire to help others. “But then you get out there and realize it can be a thankless job,” says Winters. “Even though you want to help people, sometimes as much as you do, it’s never enough.”
His loss of interest created an internal conflict: What do you do when you’ve wanted to be a physician your entire life only to achieve your goal and realize that maybe it wasn’t the best choice?
The breaking point came about five years ago. His mother had just passed away, and the next day, while trying to be both an administrator and filling in as a pediatrician, he diagnosed a child with a cold and offered the mother advice on basic care measures that would help. The mother was furious, telling him, “You don’t care about my child. You physicians don’t care about anything.”
“It was the perfect storm,” he says. “I was thinking to myself that I don’t want to do this anymore.” Winters accepted the fact that he was burned out and needed help, not only by seeking counsel, but also in identifying what his passion was. He found a different way to reach his dream of helping people.
“Even if I’m not seeing patients, I’m doing things like teaching and attending community events, using my medical degree to educate people to make an impact in their lives,” says Winters, who is medical director of the Healthstart Pediatric Clinic and associate program director of pediatric residency for Atlantic Health System. “That’s what motivated me to get over the feeling of burnout. I’m not immune to burnout, but I want to get up in the morning.”
Winters says medical students need to be educated on the challenges of being a physician and the risks of burnout. “They need to be able to seek help—not even professional counseling, but just surrounding themselves with individuals who are going through the same thing. There’s an unwritten rule where doctors are taught to believe if you are not able to handle things, then that’s a weakness. So people keep it to themselves and we need to get over that stigma.”
Winters says doctors don’t always recognize signs of burnout in themselves, such as apathy, or coping through alcohol or food. “They write it off as just having a bad day or just needing some sleep,” he says.
Physicians need to focus on what brings joy in their lives and find a way to escape from the rigors of their day. He recommends finding a couple of hours to do something that isn’t work-related, whether it’s exercising, binge-watching Netflix, or in his case, dancing.
“Doctors have to be able to step away and just live their life,” he says. “And don’t be afraid to be open and direct with your supervisor or department chair to tell them you are starting to feel burned out and that you are looking for advice. You might be surprised how a lot of institutions respond.”