Finding Ithaca: Our Personal Odyssey Towards Meaningfulness During Residency

by Efstathios Karamanos, MD; Bao-Quynh Julian, MD; and Amita Shah, MD, PhD


Joy at work? To most of us it might sound like an oxymoron. But it is not impossible. In reality, joy at work should be one of the main goals. Residency is tough. Long. Oftentimes demoralizing. The Hippocratic oath demands doctors to ‘keep their arts and their lives holy and pure’. As caregivers, we take an oath to provide patients with everything they need in order to feel better. But can we provide something we do not have? How am I supposed to provide for those patients the feelings of hope and safety or the environment of confidence that is much needed to heal if I do not find any joy at my work? The answer is simple; I can’t. 

In an era where electronic medical records and the fear of legal liability have alienated doctors from the bedside clinical practice, joy at work is more at stake than ever. I hear people saying all the time: Residency is not supposed to be fun! I disagree. Residency without fun is not only dangerous for the patients, but also for the residents. Burnout rates are higher than ever and many professional organizations have developed policies to help us cope with difficulties and promote residents’ wellness. How can we bring joy at work? One of the cornerstones of joy is finding meaningfulness: why am I doing this? And there is one simple question we should all ask ourselves before engaging in the perilous adventure called residency: What matters to me? 

Odyssey is the story of a hero of the Trojan War, Ulysses. It narrates his ten- year journey around the Mediterranean Sea trying to find his way home, Ithaca, an island in the Ionian Sea in Greece. While he faced ten years of extreme difficulties, obstacles that to most of us would seem impossible to overcome, Ulysses stayed true to his purpose. And he managed to succeed because he knew what mattered to him always reminding himself the reason of his perils. To him, getting home to Ithaca was what mattered. We too can decide what becomes our own Ithaca. If we do, then we have achieved meaningfulness in our job. And with meaningfulness, comes joy. 

The Institute for Health Improvement (IHI) provides a 4 step tool to help us achieve meaningfulness. IHI suggests starting by finding out why we decided to work in healthcare. Several questions can help identify the cause of our decision: When do I know I made a difference? What is the most important part of my day? What makes me proud about my job? For someone, a smile for the patient is what matters, to another going home knowing they saved a life or for another, the knowledge that they spent ten minutes with a patient at the end of the day and learned something about their personal life. To some, teaching medical students, to others, knowing that a patient will sleep less anxious today because of the care they provided. 

Once we have identified the reason ‘why’, IHI suggests we need to identify the reason ‘why not’. Just ask yourself: What gets in the way of what natters to you? What makes your day miserable? What happens in my professional life that makes me forget the reason I work in healthcare? Identifying what matters to us and the obstacles to achieve meaningfulness, are the most important steps in the process. 

Residency is undoubtedly one of the most demanding periods of our lives. Just like Ulysses, we all often concentrate on the final goal, forgetting the importance of the journey. I say we should also concentrate on the journey. We should look forward for a journey that is long, full of adventures and full of knowledge, just like Ulysses’. If we do that, no Cyclops or angered Poseidons would stand in our way. And just like Ulysses, if we have found meaningfulness during the journey, we will all reach our destination wiser and a better version of ourselves.  

Leave a Reply