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TAKING CARE OF PATIENTS BY TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF WITH DR. SUNNY SMITH

September 19, 2021 6 min read

Dr. Sunny Smith

The Fabled blog brings together diverse women in medicine to inspire uplifting conversations about life as a medical practitioner. We want to create an empowered community through open discussions about traditionally off-limits topics such as self-care and non-linear career paths. We hope that by participating in these conversations, our readers will go on to live more fulfilling lives. Our new interview series shines a light on the power of personal style, mindfulness, and more.

This month’s Women in Medicine series features Dr. Sunny Smith, a family physician based in San Diego, CA. Dr. Smith is also a certified life coach through The Life Coach School, and the founder of Empowering Women Physicians, which features organized retreats, a podcast, and a unique coaching program. She combines her coaching practice with her work as a medical educator to help women in medicine live their lives on their own terms. Read on to find out more about how Dr. Smith became a coach, her advice for young women entering a career in medicine today, and the best advice she received from her creative hero.

Why did you become a doctor? We want to hear it all: The good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly.

I became a physician because my brother has spina bifida. Ever since I can remember, physicians have played an incredibly important role in our family and our lives. At 46, my brother is bed-bound, and I had a full circle moment in the ER recently: He had bilateral pulmonary emboli, his vitals were unstable, and he needed resuscitation. The resident who walked in to resuscitate my brother was my former student. He looked at my father and said, “Your daughter taught me well. Don't worry, we'll take good care of your son.” He then placed a central line, stabilized my brother, and got him transferred to the ICU. This was the first time I truly thought that perhaps my brother might pass away, but he was saved by my student. I taught him how to care for a patient. I also taught him how to care for the family. This moment was an incredibly meaningful reminder of why I became a doctor. 

Have you ever had to negotiate something at work, and what did you learn from that experience?

I spent my life running a free clinic, so I’ve had to negotiate for nearly everything. I’ve learned to be scrappy, that passion and belief carries people far, and that advocacy is key to issues close to my heart. I’ve learned to never give up. I’ve learned every “no” is a temporary setback. I’ve learned persistence, joy, love, compassion, and resilience. I’ve learned more about the human condition than I ever could have imagined. Women advocate for others more than they advocate for themselves. It can be incredibly helpful to realize that advocating for ourselvesis advocating for others, including future generations. 

What’s your #1 tip for young women entering a career in medicine today?

We enter medicine full of compassion. The current medical systems, medical practice, and medical culture beat it out of us. We ask you to systematically learn to ignore your own needs for sleep, food, drink, restroom breaks, and the space to relax and rejuvenate. Don't forget who you were when you entered medicine. Protect yourself and your spirit any way you can. Youare good enough, just the way you are, even when you start to feel that you aren’t. You can never read all the assignments they give you, nor complete all the work you think you have to. Remember that you’re human, too. Acknowledge your humanity and that of your patients, colleagues, and classmates. A wise student once reminded me that the statement “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life and its quality” is actually in the Hippocratic Oath itself. We must remind ourselves to respect our own lives, because we are the only ones who will.

What inspired your decision to become a coach, and start Empowering Women Physicians?

Like many physicians who become coaches, coaching impacted my own life in such a meaningful way that the first time I heard coach training being offered, I jumped at the chance to sign up. I had been overworking, and my work didn’t fit into a 40-hour week. That meant I brought it home often on nights and weekends. Every day, my young son would ask me, “Is today a day you work late?” It broke my heart, but I kept going, because that’s what we do as physician moms. Suddenly, all of that came to a screeching halt when I was in a bicycle accident in Tahiti. I had a concussion, broken face, broke both my arms, and was brought back to the U.S. for surgery. I couldn't sit up, walk, feed myself, brush my own teeth, shower, or do nearly anything at all.

I heard about a podcast called The Life Coach School, which taught me to identify the circumstances of my life, the unchangeable facts, and the reality. I eventually learned to stop arguing with reality, allow all the negative emotions, and to refocus on the gratitude I had for being alive. I then joined a coaching program, was coached, signed up for coach certification, and the rest is history. I continue to be coached regularly, and find it one of the most impactful investments I make in my well-being.

What’s one thing you learned running your business that helps you build rapport with your patients?

I feel like rapport with my patients was always one of my strongest points. The connection that physicians make with their patients during some of the most frightening, uncertain, or vulnerable times of their lives is one of the most sacred relationships in society. I think that coaching has given me greater insight into the human condition, psychology, and people's thoughts, feelings, and actions. I can let go of people pleasing. I can observe the actions of disgruntled patients with more awareness and curiosity, and have more empathy and compassion for their perspective. I’ve realized that someone’s actions are driven by what they’re thinking. My actions are driven by what I’m thinking, and this is where I have control—over my own thoughts, feelings, and actions, not theirs.

Dr. Sunny Smith with Female Physicians

Women supporting women is a big theme in your work. Can you talk about how this came to be a defining element for you?

At first you think it’s rare or isolated that someone isn't paid the same, doesn't get appropriate maternity leave, is discriminated against, is made to work too hard, or has their clinical skills and leadership unacknowledged. When I had my baby, I really noticed the difference. People talked about how I should work part time, just because I had a child. They said things to me that they would never say to my husband or to any male physician. I knew what the medical culture was doing to us as human beings, but now I was exposed to and was more aware of the more unique challenges that women physicians face. Women need to support other women, instead of the culture of competition, or the belief there’s only one seat at the table. Medical schools now admit classes that are half women. We have a lot of work to do to change our culture if we hope to retain half of our workforce. 

What do you love to do outside of your medical work?

I love the beach, and am always reminding myself to go there, alone or with my family. I love to watch the sun set into the ocean, and remind myself of just how small we are in the universe. The beauty is always there. Sometimes we’re just too busy to see it or take it in, but it’s very grounding. 

Can you describe one of your creative heroes?

We had Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic speak to my Empowering Women Physicians coaching program. One exercise she gave us was to write a permission slip to ourselves. That was eye opening, because it revealed the things we wanted to stop doing, but kept doing because we thought we were “supposed to.” We realized that the only person we needed permission from was ourselves. 

What does the idea of personal style mean to you?

I think personal style exudes from the inside. I don't usually do my hair, wear makeup, or dress fancy. I’m at my best when I’m my most authentic and comfortable self. That may change and evolve over time, but I think every woman's style is just being true to herself. That’s the most stylish one could ever be: comfortable in their own skin.

Lightning round!

Fill in the blank: Women physicians are:

Amazing, inspiring, incredible human beings. Badasses. Humble. Caring. Healers.

What’s the #1 item in your self-care toolkit?

Coaching. That means learning to be my own best friend, being kind to myself, and self-compassion. 

Dr. Sunny Smith Family

What’s your dream vacation destination? 

An overwater bungalow in Bora Bora or Maldives.

What are three things that you can’t live without? 

Love, ocean, and sunsets.

Photographs courtesy of Dr. Smith.

We love talking with women in medicine who manifest self-care and self-expression. If you know someone who can teach us a thing or two, email us their details!


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