Physician, heal thyself


Over the last decade, many of America’s other first responders – doctors, teachers, nurses and social workers – have been slowly running out of oxygen. These dedicated individuals who have often sacrificed years of their lives, assumed staggering debt and delayed marriage, family, home ownership and retirement savings in pursuit of careers they love, can find themselves quietly, desperately in crisis. Statistics from the National Education Association show that 40% of new teachers leave education within five years, and an August 2018 Medscape article noted that physicians now suffer the highest suicide rates of any profession.

Professional burnout is not insurmountable, but it requires a tool kit beyond what is taught in medical and professional schools, explained Dr. Kemia Sarraf, CEO of Lodestar Physician and Professional Coaching, a business she started in response to her own experience and observations.

“Back in 2016, I was suddenly spending lots of time in hospitals again – on the other side of the bed – because my son had been diagnosed with high-risk leukemia,” explained Sarraf. “I began to observe and absorb what was happening to the doctors, nurses and techs working around me, and I had time because I was just sitting there with him day in and day out.”

Sarraf was already in the process of becoming certified as a corporate coach, but she began researching and studying what it meant be trauma-informed, ultimately deciding to combine her interest in both topics.

According to Sarraf, there is no single cause for this devastating reality among care giving professionals. Much can be attributed to the bureaucracy that has overtaken both the medical profession and public education in recent decades, eroding both autonomy and public perception.

One oft-cited example is the widespread implementation of electronic medical records. Designed to satisfy the needs of insurance and hospital systems, it has chipped away at the time physicians spend engaged in patient care – the work they love. This has led to an increasing number of driven, skilled professionals who are disengaged, dissatisfied and often deeply depressed. Recent statistics from a study conducted by Harvard Business School point at 50% burnout rates among physicians.

“I dislike the term burnout, because it’s a misnomer. It suggests you have failed to provide adequate self-care, or don’t have effective time management; that somehow you are responsible for your unhappiness at work,” said Sarraf. “But it doesn’t take into account the years of sacrifice and of living and working 12-14 hour days in toxic work environments. It doesn’t acknowledge the trauma that inflicts.

“I realized there was a need for trauma-informed coaching specifically for physicians,” said Sarraf. “We have silos of ‘first responder’ professionals in this country who are experiencing high levels of secondary trauma. They’ve become professional shock absorbers, taking on the trauma that walks into their exam rooms and classrooms every day and trying to do more with less – less time, less support, less professional autonomy. They’re also internalizing community traumas – school shootings, hospital violence…it adds up.”

Repeated exposure to the trauma of others, known as secondary traumatic stress, can compromise the professional and personal functionality of those providing care. They can, in turn, inadvertently traumatize others as they react to the secondary trauma to which they are constantly exposed.

“Clients often come in completely overwhelmed, wholly disengaged and determined that they’re going to have to do something drastic – like leave the profession they once loved – if they’re ever going to be happy again. And it’s terrifying, not only because they don’t know what they’ll do next, but also because they may have significant debt and other responsibilities – so they feel horribly trapped. It comes out in anger, in anxiety, in detachment. My job is to help these incredibly talented professionals discover untapped resources in order to transition and transform how they personally operate within what can be a very broken system. And that begins with really, truly listening to where they are, giving names to the experience, and helping them to see that they are neither alone nor are they even an outlier in their experience. Physicians are smart, tough and resilient – but they also need to know they don’t have to white-knuckle their way through the next 30 years of their career,” said Sarraf.

Utilizing a trauma-informed approach, Sarraf guides clients to identify the toxic stressors in their own lives and learn manage these stressors differently. “People in healing professions are horrified to understand that they are harming their co-workers. They truly want to know how to recognize and respond appropriately,” she explained.

“I hope we’re approaching a tipping point in the industry and in our treatment of physicians and other providers, but right now the healers themselves need a little healing. And this approach works. Trauma-informed physician coaching helps them rediscover their joy, their humor, their love of the art of medicine, their passion for patient care and connection with partners.”

She said helping clients identify and develop personal resiliency strategies is key. “When you feel totally alone, it’s hard to imagine continuing in any profession. Simply learning to recognize and name certain emotions can help with rational decision-making, which in turn, increases resiliency. There is a stepwise process that I’ve developed to help professionals make the shift from a trauma reaction, which is involuntary and can be damaging to self or reputation or relationships, to a response, which is an active choice.”

Sarraf primarily works with individual clients at her 30-acre farm and retreat located just outside Springfield. Additionally, she conducts trauma-informed trainings for school districts and intensive, multi-day retreats geared specifically for physicians and other health care providers.

“The most successful corporations have engaged C-suite coaches for decades,” said Sarraf, “and with good reason: it works. The medical profession has been slower to recognize the tremendous benefits provided by physician-coaches, but the return on investment is enormous.

“Coaching is not therapy, which is partly why it appeals to physicians. Physicians are justifiably concerned about reputational risk, licensure and privacy. They’re also incredibly busy and very task-oriented. They want to dig in and do the work to meet their professional goals and regain – or finally discover – some balance and joy and happiness. There’s a lot of accountability involved. Coaching is deliberate in a very empowering way,” said Sarraf. “Coaching is definitely not therapy. But great coaching can be incredibly therapeutic.”


Ashley Meyer is a local food writer and cook and was formerly the executive chef of genHkids, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Sarraf that seeks to improve the health of children and families in central Illinois.