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My journey to coaching

I’ve been asked to tell how I ended up in this physician coaching space a few times over the last several weeks. So, I decided to do some reflective writing about my journey.


Four major experiences overlapped and culminated in the creation of Joy in Family Medicine Coaching Services®, LLC.


First, my own personal burnout story reached the pinnacle in March 2015.  Mine was mid-career in timing (16 years out).  I was absolutely loving academic medicine and all the many hats I had to wear.  I really felt like overall, I was doing a good job.  Retrospectively, I aimed for perfection in each area and relied on external validation.  I was 100% perfection-oriented on every task. That led to working through each and every lunchtime, developing lectures at night, and foregoing socializing with colleagues as I was bent on getting all the tasks done, and chit-chat slowed me down.  Interestingly, the slow decline to burnout was almost imperceivable until I was in deep. One minute I thought everything was fine, and I was just working hard; the next, I found myself sitting on the sofa at night, unable to engage in meaningful conversation with family.  Every task, such as picking my daughter up from a friend’s house across town, seemed overwhelming.  I’d become impatient with colleagues and detached from patients. I didn’t notice I was burned out. I just thought it was time to find a job that made me happier.  So, I joined a private practice part-time while remaining on-call for the residency and began the healing process. After a year or so, I started to feel like my normal self again.


The second experience leading me to coach was getting involved in physician social media groups. I began to notice the number of physician posts increasing in private groups wanting to leave clinical medicine altogether.  Many wanted to know how they could use their training and pay off their loans while leaving medicine because they were so unhappy.  I read a thought-provoking article written by a new orthopedic surgery graduate about his colleague who, after finishing an elite fellowship, was leaving medicine.  Why are so many physicians so unhappy after pursuing a noble career and devoting blood, sweat, tears, time, and money to it –wanting out almost as soon as they start?  Besides major systems changes (which thankfully are beginning), how could we change this phenomenon?


The third thing that happened was attending a women's physician’s conference created by Dr. Sasha Shillcutt, who I’ve mentioned previously in my blogs. Four years after leaving core faculty, I was listening to Ellen Zane (former CEO of Brigham Women and Children’s and Tufts) along with an overall amazing line-up of women leaders, and I knew it was time for me to contribute more than part-time clinical medicine again.  My friend Kristen explained the concept of “margin” in life, like the blank spaces around the paragraphs in a book that can be used as a room to augment one's story. I determined I had created too much margin. I developed a whole list of ideas to fill in the margins, but by themselves, none seemed right. Ideas ranged from culinary coaching,  healthy lifestyle development, community mentoring, helping residents, curricular development, and consulting. My friend introduced me to Dr. Ali Novitsky because she felt Ali could give me clarity since she was a physician coach.


So, the fourth and final development was hiring a coach. In my free initial consultation with her, I showed her my list of options with all the pros, cons, root motivations, and honest objections in color-coded form, along with my concerns about not being full-time in the workforce.  She listened patiently and globally. She then said, “Why don’t you combine them?” I stared at her, awaiting an explanation. “You could coach residents, form curriculum, encourage healthy lifestyles during training, and prevent future generations of physicians from burning out and leaving medicine.”  You know those moments when the lightbulb clicks on?  Everything within me resonated with the idea.  She offered to both hire her as my personal coach and take her group coaching course. I am so grateful I took her up on both portions. Over the course of that 12-week group course, I watched physicians transform their lives from personal to professional - negotiations, department restructuring, relationships, balance, and reclaiming their mental and physical health - with tools I never knew existed. 


I was convinced that coaching, along with the tools it offers, can prevent burnout.  And now, there are also randomized controlled trials backing up that belief.  What started as an idea of coaching residents grew into a deep passionate belief that we can help physicians stay in their careers, not gritting their teeth the whole way until retirement but enjoying their hard, noble, chosen profession. The blood, sweat, tears, time, and money do not have to be wasted.  I completed an intense coaching certification course with purpose. Joy in Family Medicine Coaching Services®, LLC was created in January 2020.


Residency is hard, as is the role of core faculty.  Burnout is real.  Attendings directly impact the residents.  Imagine a system where faculty and residents both have these tools and the synergy that comes from them. The transition to practice, which often sees a couple of job changes, has brought me some other wonderful physicians to coach. Coaching with the tools I’ve learned is incredibly rewarding. I’m filling my margin, living into my purpose, pouring into others whole-heartedly. I still enjoy clinical medicine, but I love coaching physicians.

Have a joy-filled day,  Tonya

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