During my residency training to become an oncology clinical pharmacist, I heard a lot of: “This job is difficult. Sometimes it just gets to you. Let me know if you need some time to work through that.” Cancer sucks. Treating patients with cancer is hard. My job these days encompasses quite a lot of different things: working with medical and pharmacy residents as they struggle with oncology, counseling those starting chemotherapy, and helping write palliative care orders for patients whose death is imminent.
About 2 years ago my job really started to “get to me.” I realized I was having a hard time relating to my husband’s and my friends. They were talking about travel plans, starting new jobs, finishing graduate school, I was still thinking of the family that was left behind of that patient I lost that day. I became numb to feeling any emotion – at work or at home. I was referred by my manager to a program my hospital puts on – a “provider fatigue/burnout” coping session. It more or less validated that everyone can feel burnout, but the tool I valued the most was to set aside more time for things you enjoy physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
At that point I realized that my exercise had basically come to a halt. I live in Salt Lake City, so hiking is a big part of our life, but my regular exercise was basically zip. I was a collegiate swimmer, and started to get into triathlon my last year in college. Pharmacy school and residency got harder and more demanding and my willingness to do hard core workouts decreased. When I finally started to get into working, I was so physically and emotionally drained that there was no way I could make my out-of-shape body do anything remotely counting as exercise. I needed a goal. Growing up I always had a goal meet, race, etc to get me focused. I ended up signing up for a few local tris that summer – just sprints. I ran, swam, biked, and finished those races. It was hard though – harder than I remember. Time for a new goal.
I had always loved the idea of being an Ironman… and I always wanted the tattoo. I started to read some blogs about training times for Ironman and came across one that said you need about 2- 3 years of solid base before you should do an Ironman distance triathlon. Then I signed up for Coeur d’Alene 70.3. I had 8 months to get my mostly out-of-shape body ready for a race that was truly hard to fathom. Biking was my weakest part, so I decided to do a winter training spin program. It had regular hours and set workouts to get the rider ready for the cycling season. It would be 5:45 as I was leaving work exhausted from my 10-12 hour day, but I went to spin religiously. After about 4 weeks, I noticed I had more energy and felt better at work. I still had some shitty days, but spinning was totally therapeutic.
That spring I kept running, swimming, and biking as a sort of therapy. I noticed when I didn’t do a workout, I would be grumpy or frustrated and didn’t sleep well. I had finally found my coping skill.
I raced Coeur d’Alene in June 2017 and did better than expected. It was a blast. And of course on that post-race high I decided to go for Oceanside 70.3. I was hooked.
I need the races to make sure I have motivation to train, but the training is really my therapy. It gives me something to focus on other than how cruel the world can be sometimes. Like I said, those young patients with metastatic cancer still pull at my heartstrings, but now I have a better way to deal with those emotions. In school the focus is so knowledge-based that learning to deal with the bad things that happen in medicine are just brushed under the rug. Everyone that I work with has their own way of coping, some not so constructive, but for me, I love triathlon.
After the race at Coeur d’Alene, I had gone back into the lake to cool off. I met an older gentleman who said this was his 41st 70.3. He mentioned he had done about the same number of 140.6’s as well. Turns out he was a retired professor of anatomy and physiology at a medical school in Canada. Looks like I’m headed to 40 more 70.3’s in my lifetime.
Kelly Fritz, PharmD, BCOP, is a swimmer-turned-triathlete from Ohio, now living in Salt Lake City, UT. She loves exploring Utah with her dog Lucy and her husband Nick. She is also an oncology pharmacist at Huntsman Cancer Center, and enjoys teaching students and residents about oncology. She will be racing a 70.3 in Oceanside, and then will tackle her first full Ironman at IMWI in September 2018.