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Why Leaving Surgery Didn’t Solve My Core Problems (And What I’d Do Differently)

Jillian Rigert, DMD, MD's life lesson: after transferring residencies, she learned that leaving didn't solve her problems. She shares what she'd have done differently, in the hopes it may help others.

March 24, 2023

In 2017, the blueprint I had crafted for my life evaporated before my eyes. 

Up until that point, I had systematically checked off the steps to becoming an Air Force Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon (OMFS). I was in the Air Force, and I was in OMFS residency. I had signed an initial contract with the Air Force for 13 years, thinking “Clearly- I’ll stay at least 20 years.” My life was set. Until it wasn’t. 

By 2017, I had accepted that OMFS was not a sustainable path for me. No matter how much I loved what I could do as a surgeon, the fear of making a mistake and constant self-doubt perpetuated a constant anxiety that kept me feeling restless and unable to sleep. In the face of chronic sleeplessness, my brain was screaming for relief. I developed an intense psyche, and felt trapped. Not yet equipped with the tools to manage and cope with the circumstances, I depended on an eating disorder to numb me. The consequences were nearly my life and a medical discharge from the military- 4 years into my initial 13 year commitment. I was not prepared for my dream to evaporate, and I was left empty. 

 

Not yet equipped with the tools to manage and cope with the circumstances, I depended on an eating disorder to numb me. The consequences were nearly my life and a medical discharge from the military. Click To Tweet

 

How did I get here? What do I do now? 

My slate was blank. My professional identities… gone. What the heck do I do?

Been there?

When I reflect back to that time, I can see I had actually lost myself much earlier. Throughout my life, I lost myself in much of the pressure of external advice and societal influence. I ignored internal alarm sirens and prioritized what others thought I should do over my own opinion. I solicited a vast array of advice, and then chose not to sit with myself and listen to what my mind, body, and soul all had to say. Instead, I gave external influence and my pride the power to carve the path, even when my body and soul were rebelling. 

…Whoops… 

Fortunately, awareness is a great first step. However, then what? The lessons I share with you, today, are what I learned to honor years later, after I hit another rock bottom in 2021. At that point, I knew I needed to turn inward to ask- what’s at the core, here?

While I had changed my circumstances by leaving surgery, I had not yet sat with myself to understand what all happened and what I needed to do to take back ownership of my life. The same things that led to my departure from surgery remained prevalent in my life. 

As I have shared parts of my journey, I have come to realize I am far from alone- and you are not alone, either. As many can relate, I’ll share what I’ve learned from my introspection and see how it may or may not resonate with you. 

While I’m still peeling back the layers, what I have accepted is that my constant drive to do more and accomplish more (which led me into OMFS) stemmed from my lack of internal sense of self-worth. My worth was dependent on external validation and achievements, and I thought I’d finally feel worthy when I was in the Air Force and OMFS.

 

“While I’m still peeling back the layers, what I have accepted is that my constant drive to do more and accomplish more (which led me into OMFS) stemmed from my lack of internal sense of self-worth.”

 

What needs to be true in order to feel intrinsically worthy, independent of your CV? 

As a sensitive person, I had internalized a belief from society that sensitivity is a weakness. Becoming an Air Force OMFS was a solution as I thought I would appear strong. Now, I’m still a sensitive person, and see that as my strength as it enables me to connect deeply with others. Had I continued in the Air Force and OMFS, I would have been a sensitive Air Force OMFS. I never needed to try to hide my sensitivity- even if the surgeon stereotype suggests otherwise. Be true to you.  

What societal beliefs may you need to let go of in order to fully embrace your true self? 

I pursued training to become an Air Force OMFS with great intentions- it felt like the right answer for me at the time. However, the same reasons I chose that path eventually contributed to my departure. My lack of self-worth and trying to hide my sensitive self made me feel I didn’t belong in OMFS- which became the self-fulfilling prophecy that led me to find ways to prove myself right. Dependent on external validation, I crumbled under the feelings of being incompetent as I learned new knowledge and skills. With perfectionistic thinking, I thought I needed to know the information and have the skills right before I learned them. And while positive feedback about my performance received during my training helped me to accept that I may not be seeing myself clearly- the comments couldn’t change what only I could… what I believed about myself.

If I could go back, I’d have asked myself what was at the core, sooner. How are your thoughts and beliefs serving you- or no longer serving you? What do you really need?

I did not know at that time. I was disconnected from myself for so long that I no longer knew who I was or what I wanted. So I left. 

But leaving surgery did not solve my core problems- though it did solve my acute problems and need for sleep to think more clearly. I repeated similar patterns in my next residency and into my first year as an attending and then again as I pursued a fellowship. 

What I needed to do differently and recommend now: 

  1. Pause: Pause from the overwork that keeps us from hearing our own thoughts. Listen.
  2. Observe: Observe the thoughts and where they may come from.
  3. Challenge: Challenge the beliefs and let go of the ones that are no longer serving us.
  4. Allow: Allow the emotions to be felt without numbing.
  5. Act: Take back ownership of our lives through actions that are in alignment with our core values and sense of purpose and meaning. 

 

While changing my mindset may not have changed my decision to transfer specialties, honoring what I truly needed certainly would have reduced the amount of internal suffering I added for myself along the way.

What would you change if you knew your worth did not depend on external validation or achievements? 

What do you truly need right now? What’s the next best step to honor those needs as you create a life that’s true to you?

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

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