Help On the Path to Better


Okay, let’s talk about your eating!

What about your eating habits is already good, that you want to maintain, that you’re proud of?

And where is there room for improvement?

Sometime in the last five years, I started querying my patients about nutrition this way.  It seems to put people more at ease talking about their eating habits, for some reason.  Culturally, we are so judgmental and defensive about food and eating, weight and appearance.  So one day, I decided to start with the positive, and it makes the conversation easier for everybody.  Fascinating!

I did not realize until the past week that this is my personal version of appreciative inquiry (AI).  I have started including AI in my presentations this fall, which is very well received so far.  I got feedback from the talk I gave to my design friends two weeks ago.  They liked focusing on the positives of work before problem solving.  This week I presented to a mixed audience of physicians, from all specialties, early career to retired, on burnout.  I chose to make it similarly workshop-like, a very ambitious undertaking in 45 minutes, but we did it!  In the last segment I invited audience members to identify the first step they might take to address their own sources of burnout, or improve their self-care.

One generous physician shared her plan, initially stated as, “Just commit to doing it,” talking about exercise.  After a few more questions, we arrived at her actual plan: figure out what she will do (treadmill); decide how long she can carve out (30 min); find time on the calendar; write it on the calendar; know how she will be held accountable.  Turns out she had already succeeded at executing–5 times a week for 20 weeks this year—STRONG WORK, MAMA!  I wonder if there are other arenas where she applies this same, stepwise approach to making something better in her life, or the lives of her patients.

When I ask patients what needs to happen to improve their health, we inevitably start at the abstract (“Just Do It”) and must work to get to the concrete, granular action steps that will actually result in successful behavior change.  It’s gratifying for both of us to arrive at a plan that the patient him/herself has an active hand in creating.  Then s/he feels ultimate ownership and agency to execute.

These days I also always ask about help.  Who else can keep you on track?  Can your spouse eat healthier with you?  Can your assistant eliminate junk food from lunch meetings?  Can your kids be your food police?  My best friend in college agreed to do this for me our junior year, and I lost all of my freshman fifteen, God bless him (and yes, we are still friends).  When we go shopping and I look tempted to buy yet more of something I already have piles of, my daughter asks, “Do you want me to be your conscience?”  Usually I reply with a hedonist, “No,” but I’m always grateful for the offer, and it does make me think twice.

Often patients return the next year living healthier in one way or another.  Sometimes the plan works; many times they find another way.  Sometimes plans are executed and then derailed.  So we get to work on a new plan, asking all the same questions over again.  It doesn’t have to be a slog!  It’s just what we’ gotta do—keep getting help on the path to better.   It’s my privilege to serve as helper.

These last two weeks (months?), I’m definitely not sleeping enough.  Exercise is hit or miss.  Eating is pretty erratic and unhealthy.  Stress ebbs and flows with travel and events.  But my relationships are thriving and I’m doing some seriously fun and amazing sh*t.  Next year maybe the eating and workouts will be on autopilot and I’ll have to lean on folks to get through rough times.  The path to better always gets blocked, takes detours, and makes us reroute.  Those twists and turns are so much more fun, and we notice so much more beauty that we might otherwise miss, when we take them with good friends, no?  I’m so grateful to have such loving help on the journey, and also honored to offer it.  Onward.


The Mark You Make


Friends, Ozan has written another book!  I know it may seem like it, but he’s not paying me to promote his work, really!  He has offered perks for Inner Circle members, however, like an advance digital copy for preordering, and signed copies when the book is released next April.  In considering what I would ask him to inscribe to my friends in the books I will give them, I realized yet another evocative dimension of my relationships.

If you were to describe your friendships to a third party, or make a meaningful introduction in service of connecting two amazing people, what would you say?  I call it ‘connecting fellow Awesomes,’ and it’s always a pleasure and privilege to serve in this capacity.  I thought to ask Ozan to write to one friend something like, “Cathy thinks the world of you—happy to make such a positive new connection!”  Then I thought, this friend has really made a mark on me.  Then I thought of the mark Ozan has also made, in just 9 months of virtual contact.  And then my mind was blown with the realization of my cosmically marked-up self—the finger, hand, and footprints of all those whom I have contacted.

Years ago I attended the orthopaedic surgery resident graduation dinner with my husband, a happy and fun annual event.  At the end, mingling with faculty and trainees, one of the graduates looked at me and his eyes widened.  “You’re Dr. Cheng!  You were my teaching attending during my third year medicine rotation [7 years prior] at [the hospital where I used to work]!”  I was gratified that his expression was cheerful, rather than distressed or awkward, surprise.  He went on to tell me that I held the team to a high standard of discussion, and that he appreciated my presence and teaching.  I will always remember this encounter with pride and appreciation.

In the past year three patients from my past have resurfaced and told me the positive difference I made it their lives.  I remembered two of them so clearly, both their faces and their names (after 20 years and thousands of patients, I can usually only remember one or other).  Talking to each of them reminded me of all that we had been through together, and I was glad that I had done my job well.

But what about those for whom I have not been a great doctor?  I have had my fair share of patients who left me, for various reasons.  I know I have been seriously disappointing for many.  I wonder how many times I have contributed to patients’ negative overall experience of medicine, and further widened the divide between doctors and patients in our fraught and flawed healthcare system?  Sometimes I look back on my early years of practice and cringe a little—all the writing I do now on empathy, compassion, curiosity, openness, and humility results from years of lessons learned in real time, on real people.  I’m definitely much more adept at it all now than in the beginning.  And I’m still learning—I still get triggered, still fall into old, counterproductive thought and behavior patterns.  Sometimes it feels like I will never be good enough, or enough in general.


I also think about the people whose marks on me were/are hurtful, dismissive, and otherwise wounding.  It reminds me of carvings I see in the trunks of the beautiful aspens I walked among this weekend.  Did the folks who made them set out to harm the trees?  If they thought the tree might die from their knife marks, would they think twice?  Maybe they were overcome with their profound experience in nature and just wanted to mark it in some way, especially if they shared it with someone they loved (so may initials with plus signs and hearts)?  Sometimes we just want or need to be right, competent, respected, and acknowledged.  So we mark our encounters with stubbornness, aggression, or even violence (in its many forms, overt and cloaked).  Like the strong and flexible aspens, I bear scars from such encounters and still continue to thrive.  Such marks have taught me how to care for myself, and also how not to be toward others.

In the end, how do I reconcile these relationship phenomena?  Sometimes we can see and know the mark we make on others.  Many times we cannot.  Nobody is perfect.  My whole life I will scrape and nick those around me, hopefully never with malicious intent.  I can only hope for their generosity and grace, and forgiveness.

Sister Brené Brown, once again, helps me continue.  In her book Rising Strong, she describes a choice, a mental attitude, that can help us all suffer less.  If you have not read or heard the book, I highly recommend it—it’s my favorite of the 5 of her books I have read.  Assume, she says (with the help of her pediatrician husband), that we are all doing the best we can.  That’s it.  We are all imperfect.  Our circumstances mess with us, our patterns mess with each other, and sometimes it can feel like a strange and inexplicable miracle that we have not all killed one another already.  But choosing to give each other this one, simple, and at times colossally difficult benefit of the doubt, could be what saves us all.

We simply cannot extricate ourselves from each other.  So we can just do your best to take care of one another.  And be prepared to apologize, early and often.