On his first night as an attending physician, moonlighting in the ER of a rural southern hospital, Dr. Travis Stork got his first postgraduate lesson in life and death.
"A father frantically ran into the ER carrying a young boy who was unresponsive and barely breathing," recalls Dr. Stork, the Emmy-nominated cohost of the award-winning talk show The Doctors.
When the child's breathing became more faint and his lips started turning blue, Dr. Stork knew he had to act quickly.
"I was prepared, but, to be honest, I was also a little bit scared. I knew that it was up to me and only me to figure out what was wrong and do whatever was necessary to save his life. You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife, because this little hospital was not used to dealing with a dying child."
And neither was he.
"You may think I'm going to say that I took heroic action and saved his life. But to be frank, it was my years of training that saved his life. That and I took a deep breath. That deep breath turned any fear into focus, and I did what I was taught to do: I doctored."
He found out that the boy had taken some of his grandfather's medicinemedicine that can cause an erratic heart rate, seizures, and, ultimately, death. Dr. Stork inserted a breathing tube and administered IV meds, which helped save the child's life.
For Dr. Stork, it was a lesson learned.
"Ever since that night, I have been able to make the necessary decisions and take action from a place of calm, with a level of focus I never even knew that I had," he says. "And it always starts with a deep breath."
That's just one of the lessons the University of Virginia Medical School graduate has gleaned from his ER experience and, most important, from his patients and colleagues. It's made a difference in his life, so we sat down with him to find out what else he's learned.
Here are Dr. Stork's six lifesaving lessons.
|Most people in the ER didn't have to end up in the ER|
Before I became an emergency medicine doctor, I wasn't always as careful as I could have been about wearing my seat belt, remembering my bike helmet, driving defensively, and all those other small habits that keep us safe and healthy. But this line of work makes you a lot more anal-retentive about that kind of thing. I see firsthand how often making just one small mistake means someone won't t get a chance to make another one. Now my health mantra is: Wise people learn from the mistakes of others.
And the sad fact is that many of the illnesses and accidents that come into my emergency room are 100% preventable. All too often, I have to tell a patient's loved ones that she didn't make it, and we all know that might not have been the case if only she had worn her bike helmet, buckled her seat belt, or quit smoking. These families feel unimaginable pain when they realize how easily their loved one's death could have been prevented. I wouldn't wish that moment on anyone.
Of course, accidents still happen and you can't live your life in fear—but you can take ownership of your health and try to avoid the truly preventable stuff. (Learn how to prevent anything from hangnails to diabetes!)
|If you're a caregiver, don't forget to take care of you|
I see a lot of patients who got sick because they're taking care of everybody else—aging parents, spouses, children—and putting their own health last. When you have a lot of people depending on you, it's easy to think, I just don't have time to exercise, to eat a healthy breakfast, or to get enough sleep. I know this because I've lived it.
In medical school and residency, we're trained to work nonstop, sleep be damned. And an emergency medicine doctor's lifestyle, in particular, is not conducive to good sleep habitsyou work a lot of nights, and you're always worrying about your patients, even when you're off the clock. Things got even crazier once I began filming The Doctors and had to juggle my taping schedule in Los Angeles with my work in the emergency room back home. There was a lot of travel and stress keeping up with everything.
But around the time I turned 40, the stress and lack of sleep started to take a toll. I realized that I often felt overwhelmed, and it definitely affected my sleep and ability to relax. I remember some life-changing advice that I received from my mentor in medical school, Dr. Curtis Tribble, the director of my surgical rotation and now a good friend. He told me, "Travis, never ask your patients to do something that you're not willing to do in your own life." I've taken that advice with me throughout my career and always try to practice what I preach. When I encourage people to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, I can tell them how I ride my bike to work, rain or shine. And so I realized, when I tell patients to pay attention to their stress and make sure to get enough sleep, I really need to be thinking about my own stress and sleep, too.
More and more studies are showing that stress management and good sleep are pillars of good health; even if you're trying to eat right and exercise, without these habits in place, your health will suffer.
It was a pretty profound turning point. I now focus more on planning ahead and try to book flights and my schedule in such a way that I'm not always on an airplane or working. It can be hard to say no to extra commitments, but it's worth it when I see how much better I feel and how I'm able to give even more to the people who rely on me.
(An estimated 65.7 million Americans call themselves caregivers—here are 10 things every one of them should know.)
|Taking a deep breath can make any stressful situation better|
Life-or-death decisions need to happen at lightning speed in the emergency room. When I was younger, my mantra was always I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. That helped me push myself hard and got me through some tough times. Nobody teaches you how to cope with the emotional intensity of these life-or-death situations in medical school, so I had to teach myself. But as I get older, I realize that it's not always about pushing yourself to go harder or fastersometimes what you really need to get through a stressful situation is to slow down for a minute and take a deep breath.
Now when we're facing those moments at work where the rubber meets the road, I take a deep breath. I've also found that taking this quick time-out helps me manage my stress response to more mundane things, like when I'm dealing with a delayed flight or a traffic jam. It's so easy to let that stuff get us riled up, but that's the kind of thing that leads to chronic stress, and it can really take a toll on our health over time. (Feel relaxed in no time with these 2-minute stress solutions.)
|Good health happens in between doctors' visits|
I say this all the time to my patients and our viewers on The Doctors: You have to be the CEO of your own health. In this day and age of IO-minute-or-less appointments, doctors just can't be that involved in our day-to-day health. Your doctor isn't on hand to remind you to pack healthy snacks to take to work, and he or she isn't there every morning to drag you out of bed in time to go to the gym or every night when you're deciding whether to go to sleep or watch The Late Late Later Show. (See Lesson No. 2. Go to sleep.) We're in charge of all these small decisions that add up to good healthand fewer emergency room visitsand we have to hold ourselves accountable.
A big part of being accountable for your health is knowing your family history. Again, you can't assume your doctors will ask all the right questions, so it's very important that you be informed about your own health and take the initiative to tell them everything you think they need to know. For example, diabetes, high cholesterol, and melanoma all run in my family, so those are conditions I am very conscious of when it comes to making my own health decisions.
I watch my diet closely (especially my sugar and salt intake) and always have a healthy snack like mixed nuts on hand, especially when I travel, so I don't succumb to junk food temptations in the airport or on the road. I also have my own blood pressure cuff at home (you can get one starting at about $30 on Amazon). I've figured out over the years that my blood pressure is very sensitive to sodium, so whenever I've been eating too much salt, I make sure to check my blood pressure; if it's up, I modify my diet to get it back to normal. I always wear sunscreen, and I have had three moles removed in the past 18 months, just to be safe. Colon cancer also runs in my family, and usually the symptom is no symptom at all, so I'm already planning, in concert with my own doctor, to get a colonoscopy earlier than the recommended age of 50.
None of it takes a ton of time or money, and it doesn't feel like a huge chore. (Well, I'll get back to you on the colonoscopy.)
|We can't always choose our health, but we can choose our attitude|
In many ways, the emergency room is a sociology experiment. Everybody faces perhaps the toughest moment of his or her life, and everybody responds in a different way. For some folks, all they can do is respond with anger at themselves for their own carelessness, at their loved ones for who knows what reasons, or, because they are feeling powerless and scared and it looks like we're the ones in control, at our staff.
But at least as often as I see patients respond with anger, I also meet patients who truly inspire me, because they face such difficult circumstances with amazing resilience and grace. I'll never forget the woman with terminal cancer who was brought in to our emergency department by her family. After tests and much deliberation, we all realized that it was her timeshe likely had less than 24 hours to live. But despite her weakened state, she was smiling! I couldn't believe how kind she was to every person around her.
I sat down next to her and said, "How are you managing right now? How are you doing?" And she said, "Dr. Stork, I'm happy, because I'm surrounded by everyone I love, and I've lived a blessed life. I have no reason to be upset." She knew she was about to die, but she chose grace. She could have been angry that this cancer was taking her away too soon or that she was going to die in a hospital bed. But she chose to go on her own positive terms; she had her family around her, and that was all she needed.
She'll never know this, but she taught me that we always have a choice. We don't get to control everything that happens to our health, and we certainly don't get to pick how or when we'll die. But we have a choice about how we react to the situation. We can control our attitude and choose to make the most of each moment, instead of wasting it in anger. I would be lying if I said this work hasn't colored my every perspective on life. When the time comes for me, I hope I can show that same resilience.
|If you do nothing else, walk 30 minutes a day|
It doesn't cost any money, it doesn't take a lot of time, and all the evidence shows that this is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself, to add quality years to your life. Other exercises are great, too. I love bicycling and try to go on a lot of rides in addition to using my bike to commute to work. (Last year I was fortunate to complete a 100-mile mountain bike race. By the way, I'll never do that again!) But if there's ever a day when I haven't gotten on the bike or otherwise been active, my wife and I try to head out for a quick walk after dinner. It's not just about the physical health benefits; walking with your spouse, kids, or dog gives you an easy way to connect with your loved ones. And most of all, getting in the habit of a daily walk means that every day, you're deciding to do something good for your health. When you come back from that walk, you may be less likely to reach for the bag of chips or make other unhealthy choices, because you've put that healthy mind-set in place.
(Need some motivation? Follow this training plan and you'll be walking your way to a 5K finish in just 6 weeks)