Five New Year's Resolutions from an ER Doc

Five New Year's Resolutions from an ER Doc

Here are the healthy resolutions an ER doc wishes you’d make – plus tips for sticking to them.

As I helped pull my next patient off the EMS gurney onto the stretcher, he clutched his chest, disappointment heavy on his face as he confessed that his New Year’s resolution to quit smoking had failed yet again—as it had for the past four years. The 30-year-old guy a couple of doors down had planned to control his anger; his x-ray showed a broken hand from punching a wall. As ground zero for failed resolutions, the ER is also a great place to find ones that will work. What can be both manageable and impactful? Here are a few resolutions worth considering, based on what I’ve learned from treating patients. They’re not specific to any one condition – but when applied, they can give your overall health a big boost.

My suggestion? Choose just one for starters. We're all so overextended that too many goals can dilute the effort. So pick one and remind yourself of it each morning. Then take one action, no matter how small, that moves you closer to that goal. I'll be doing the same -- and I'd love to hear how it's going in a few months! 

1. Listen to your body. Whether it’s the stomach ache you’ve ignored for four weeks or the knee pain when you go biking, it pays to listen to your body. Maybe it’s nothing. But talking to your doctor will a.) help give you an idea of what’s causing the problem if there is one and b.) educate you on your options for addressing it. Sometimes good old physical therapy or minor lifestyle and diet changes can make a huge difference in how you feel.

2. Be in the moment. It may sound clichéd, but if working in the ER has taught me anything, it’s that the time we have is short. So put down the phone and really focus on your child when you play with her. Stop thinking of what you’ll say next in a conversation and just listen to the person who’s talking. Every moment won’t be filled with fireworks – but life is richer when you’re focused on the here and now.  

3. Get real about your resolutions. No, really. Don’t tell me that your New Year’s resolutions include losing 20 pounds and quitting smoking by February 1. I’m not saying you shouldn’t work toward those things if they’re right for you (and I applaud you for it!), but be sure to make your goals realistic and manageable. How do you climb the Himalayas? One step at a time. So plan your steps. Anticipate whiteout weather or your sherpa going on strike. And bring some extra moleskin because—shoot—it’s just a long climb. Take time to celebrate the view and each small victory. Nothing propels you better up and over that hill than the successes you’ve experienced along the way.

4. Take responsibility for your health. No one else can -- and no one else should — be expected to do this for you. Not your doctor, your partner or your care coordinator. Every day I see patients who, when asked why they haven’t followed up on something their doctor asked them to do, will say “Well, my doctor didn’t call me” or “I forgot to schedule with the physical therapist.” Yes, doctors are increasingly busy. But patients lose critical time with their doctors by missing appointments, being late and not being organized about their own care. Don’t tell me you “take a green pill” and then expect 20-Questions-While-I-Try-To-Guess to be a valuable use of our time together. You wouldn’t depend on your bank to keep your finances in order, would you? You are your own Chief Medical Officer. Consider it a promotion and get to work.

5. Give thanks. Gratitude really is great medicine. Studies have shown that people who count their blessings (either by lists, journals or just awareness) have better health, fewer physical symptoms, lower depression and better life satisfaction.  Double bonus? Not only does gratitude improve your day, you may even make someone else’s a bit better. After a particularly frustrating shift in the ER one night, I went to speak to one of my patients – an elderly woman – before heading home. I was rushing to complete my charts, manage several very sick patients at once and place orders that a nurse needed. I hurried into the room and shared my treatment plan with the woman and her family. Then something happened. They smiled and her granddaughter, with tears in her eyes, said “Thank you so much.” They said that I didn’t know how much the care I had given their grandmother meant to them. They’re right—I didn’t. I left that shift feeling uplifted and connected to my patients and my work. How many times during our day do we have opportunities like this to change our own and someone else’s experience?

The ER is a lot like life – chaotic, unpredictable, with heartbreaking tragedy mixed in with heart-swelling joy and relief. Every next patient is a chance to learn from the prior ones and do better. New Year’s resolutions are a lot the same. My patient with chest pain? After a heart catheterization, he’s now on medication to help him quit smoking and so far so good! The one with the broken hand? Well, let’s just say that, like all of us, he’s a work in progress.

What a blessing that every year, every month and every day is an opportunity to try again, to continue striving. Let’s take some steps and work on resolutions that can help us boost our health and happiness this New Year and in those to come.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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