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Why Observing Shabbat Makes Me a Better Doctor

July 10, 2016 | by Dr. Jacob L. Freedman

For starters, it keeps me sane.

“Do you ever have any problems keeping Shabbat and being a doctor?” asked my new colleague at the hospital. I’ve been answering some variation of this question ever since I started medical school and my roommate asked me, “How the heck are you going to pass our big Anatomy test on Monday if you don’t study at all on Saturday?”

I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences explaining my Shabbat observance since entering the field of medicine. As a 3rd year med student there was the surgeon who looked at me incredulously one Friday afternoon when I told him that I was going to have to walk home from the hospital if he made me dictate any more of his post-operative notes. There was my colleague in residency training who complained that it wasn’t fair I never had to cover Saturdays until I offered to cover her patients that Thanksgiving.

Once I began observing the Jewish Sabbath back in 2005, negotiating my new career in medicine wasn’t half as hard as I thought it might be. The first step was seeking out a residency training program – and subsequently a hospital position – where the department chair was willing to accept my schedule. The interviews always included a few time-tested jokes about being “available 24/6” and “knowing exactly what my vacation schedule will look like for the next 224 years according to the Jewish calendar.” I also made some friends volunteering to cover Sundays and agreeing to help out every December 25th and January 1st. This allowed me to arrange for my colleagues to cover for me on Friday nights and Saturdays in what most people were able to accept as an even trade.

Come Shabbat I never truly shed my white coat and stethoscope. While my pager is reliably signed out on Friday afternoons, there have been emergencies that have kept me in the hospital longer than I would have expected and I’ve hiked home in the dark more than a few times. There have also been times at synagogue where I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the medical training to assist folks in the same way that I would have were it a regular Tuesday. Doing whatever you have to do to save someone’s life overrides Shabbat. Furthermore, caring for patients is not a violation of Shabbat for doctors, nurses like my sister Hannah, or for my buddy Noam who’s an EMT.

Observing Shabbat prevents me from being another victim of the burnout epidemic ravaging my colleagues in the medical field.

Keeping Shabbat keeps me sane. Back in med school when my roommate asked me how I’d identify all 3,481 parts of the human abdomen and thorax for our anatomy test, I explained to him, “Resting one day a week gives me the power to study hard through the other six days.” The mindfulness Shabbat provided me left me rejuvenated enough to brave the monsoon of medical school exams and I weathered the storm well enough to land at Harvard Medical School for a top-notch residency program.

Observing Shabbat prevents me from being another victim of the burnout epidemic ravaging my colleagues in the medical field. I never would have been able to resist the seduction of writing new academic papers, moonlighting a bit more to pay off my debts, or following up on labs tests and completing old patient notes. Luckily I have Shabbat to keep me balanced and engaged with my loved ones as a family member. Looking at the faces around the hospital on Monday mornings, you don’t have to be an expert psychiatrist to see despair in the eyes of the folks who worked straight through the weekend and didn’t spend any time with their loved ones. It’s the look of mental exhaustion, the look of preparing to quit by age 45, and the look of needing a good psychotherapist to talk about the tragedy of physician burnout. (In med school a friend of mine spent a record-breaking 137 straight days at the library!) It’s also worth noting that research shows physician burnout is directly linked to poor patient care and medical errors which means that Shabbat is good for my patients too.

Shabbat has been a much bigger savior than a hindrance. Many years ago while hiking in northern Israel, I met a young Chassidic man who was headed in a similar direction. We didn’t really share a language but we nonetheless communicated easily in the shared solitude of our beautiful surroundings by a mountain stream. At some point in our makeshift conversation he asked me – though an imperfect translation – if I “protected Shabbat.” The answer was easy: I don’t protect Shabbat; Shabbat protects me.

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