Interview with Yvonne Ator, MD, MPH
After suffering burnout herself, and seeing its effects first hand, Dr. Yvonne Ator dedicated her life to helping the helpers (physicians) thrive. In this week’s episode, we dive into the world of physician executive coaching with Dr. Ator.
As a physician, musician, coach, writer, author, speaker and serial-quester, Yvonne is tireless in her mission as a “Helper for Helpers” to empower, equip and inspire those who have sacrificed to serve. She has internationally published several articles on wellness and personal development, including laughter as medicine, caring for caregivers, practicing meditation, and cultivating values. She is a co- author of the book “Thinking About Quitting Medicine?”
Because she is a member of the Physician Nonclinical Career Hunters Facebook Group, where she engages with and helps other members, I was especially interested in speaking with Yvonne.
Yvonne was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Nigeria. She, like many immigrants, came to America with a dream. Hers was one of healing the world through medicine. “My heroes were Albert Schweitzer and Oprah.”
After completing her medical degree at East Carolina School of Medicine as a Schweitzer Fellow, she found herself pregnant with her first child and about to begin her combined internal medicine/pediatrics residency.
With the demands of early motherhood and a clinical residency, Yvonne often went days without sleep in order to spend time with her child. But the routine quickly took a toll on her, both physically and emotionally. Right before she fully burned out, she decided to take a break and pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health at John’s Hopkins.
“My heroes were Albert Schweitzer and Oprah.”
It was during her studies there that she came across the work of Brene ́ Brown and finally realized that what she had been going through was burnout. “I didn’t know what burnout was… I was just used to grinning and bearing it.”
That set her on a path of discovery in the sphere of physician wellness and self-care that led her to ultimately leave medicine and become a full-time executive coach.
Yvonne became certified as a personal and executive coach in positive psychology and received training in the work of Brene ́ Brown. She focused on organizational leadership, as she wanted to address the systemic issues behind burnout and compassion fatigue.
“I didn’t know what burnout was…I was just used to grinning and bearing it.”
Yvonne knew that she could help physicians by supporting them to change their circumstances. But it is also important to improve their resilience. So, she obtained certification as an Unbeatable Mind Coach focused on mental toughness and emotional resilience, trained by a retired Navy SEAL Commander.
She is now better able to help physicians thrive in any environment, including the Volatile Uncertain Chaotic and Ambiguous (VUCA) medical environment.
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For Yvonne, like many other physicians that leave clinical practice, it wasn’t an immediate transition. “My original intention was to go back and practice medicine and teach these things to my colleagues.” However, a series of unexpected events drove her to make an unplanned change. The first was a phone call from Nigeria to inform her that her estranged father had a stroke and was in intensive care.
While trying her best to support him from afar, there was a doctor’s strike in Nigeria. Due to a lack of proper care, within 24 hours her father died. Shortly thereafter, a family friend in America committed suicide during her residency.
Both these tragic events served to galvanize Yvonne's feelings about the importance of physician wellness and self-care. She decided to pause her residency and focus full-time on physician wellness.
Helping the Helpers Thrive
Yvonne began to explore the subject of physician wellness after hearing from physicians who had experienced burnout or seen others go through it. Her colleagues had forgotten why they entered medicine in the first place, and they described stories of suicide and loss.
Through her learning, she realized the importance of providing doctors with the proper support, whether to continue in medicine or to transition out. “When I left medicine, I had no safety net… I had no one to tell me I was just going through a transition.”
Now she focuses her attention on clients who need intensive coaching. Some come to her with the intention of leaving medicine, some with the goal of learning how to cope as physicians, and some who are unsure of what's next. The common thread to Yvonne is that they all need a plan, a way to make sense of what they are going through and a strategy to deal with it.
The first goal is always to provide her clients with a way to orient themselves and ensure that they are aligned with their goals and best interests. “When you’re in a negative state, your view of your options is very limited.”
By lifting physicians who are experiencing burnout out of their lowest moments, Yvonne is able to offer them a sense of perspective, and begin to guide them toward their next steps, whatever they may be.
And, it's always about helping the helpers thrive.
Links for today's episode:
Thanks to our sponsor…
Thanks to the UT Physician Executive MBA program for sponsoring the show. It’s an outstanding, highly rated, MBA program designed for working physicians. It might be just what you need to prepare for that joyful, well-paying career. You can find out more at vitalpe.net/physicianmba.
I hope to see you next time on the PNC Podcast.
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