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August 24, 2016

When Dogs Are The Best Medicine

Residency is no joke, but it certainly helps to have a sense of humor about it Who are you? It’s a simple question. It’s also an impossible one. When asked, we answer with a name. But a name is a sound, not an identity. We quickly follow up with a job title. But a job is what we do, not who we are. The distinction is important.

Residency is no joke, but it certainly helps to have a sense of humor about it

Who are you?

It’s a simple question. It’s also an impossible one. When asked, we answer with a name. But a name is a sound, not an identity. We quickly follow up with a job title. But a job is what we do, not who we are. The distinction is important.

Earlier this summer, Emily stumbled through the door and fell into my arms after her last shift as a medical resident. She was sick, exhausted and spent. It seemed a fitting physical, emotional and psychological accounting of the true costs of residency.

“Hand over your old life for 4(+) years and we’ll hand back your new life for the next forty years.” That’s the deal residents across the country eagerly accept. Why then, after willingly sacrificing so much to achieve their goal, do physicians have such high rates of burnout?

I suspect in many instances it’s a case of mistaken identity. Residents learn to answer the simple question, “Who are you?” with the simple response, “A doctor.” They, like many of us, often forget to wrestle with the impossible part of the answer.

Emily and I often discussed the importance of work/life balance, but it was a hilariously theoretical conversation. Residency unequivocally prioritizes professional development over personal development, so we had precious little time to practice that balance.


Ever work so hard you didn’t notice two dogs wrestling across your laptop?

We signed up for a cooking class once, but I had to go by myself because Emily was called to the hospital for an emergency. I still remember the looks of pity my fellow classmates gave me as I frantically explained that I did in fact have a real wife – which sounds exactly like what a guy without a real wife would say.

Emily and I ran the Chicago Marathon together, and at the finish line kept right on running to catch the train. Emily had to hustle to make it to work on time.

As I held Emily on the couch that last night of residency, the pups jumped into our laps. Eko and Penny knew nothing of Emily’s struggle the past four years, but they were just as eager to love and comfort her. That’s who dogs are.


Don’t try to tell these two they’re not lap dogs

In love? Depressed? Ecstatic? Exhausted? A dog happily welcomes you home regardless. Money, accolades and status similarly hold no sway in a pup’s heart. Dogs accept all our changing and complex answers to the question “Who are you?” with the simple request the answer begins, “I’m with you.”

Between Emily’s last day of residency and her first day of work she decided to take six weeks of vacation. Six weeks sounds like a lot, but if you saw Emily that night you’d probably think it wasn’t nearly enough. So how, in just six weeks, could we salve the wounds of residency and help prepare Emily and our family for a successful and happy future?

Simple. We treated each other like dogs.


And dogs certainly know how to treat a lady right!

First, Emily slept like a dog. Eko and Penny are world-class snooze machines, but Emily put them both to shame in those first few days. In the few sleep-walking moments Emily was awake, I could tell she felt compelled to check in at the hospital. To reorient herself and reaffirm her identity. Instead I closed her laptop and ushered her right back to bed, where the dogs happily napped at her feet.

The next week we loaded up the pups and drove to Vermont for a vacation on Lake Champlain with Emily’s family. We blissfully disconnected from time, space and the internet. With Eko and Penny leading the pack we spent our days hiking, swimming and laying in the grass. We turned off our alarms, turned off our phones and tuned in to the present moment.


Great people, great pups, great vacation

After our time in Vermont, we helped my mom move out of her house in New Jersey. Eko and Penny provided careful supervision. Together we hauled out boxes of my old trophies, clothes and trinkets I’d preciously stashed in the attic. I once held on to these things to help me answer that vexing “Who are you?” question, but it was clearer than ever the things which define me were no longer, well, things.

What defines me? Dancing with Emily in our kitchen, racing across the beach with my dogs, staring at the ceiling at night wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the rest of my life. The answer depends on the moment, but I’ve learned it’s certainly not something I can store in a box.


You know what I mean

After all our time on the road, I’m still not quite certain what dogs think about cars. Did Eko and Penny have any idea I controlled where the car took us? Did they think the car was the master of our fate? Or maybe they thought of the car as an engine of chance, each turn of the key a gamble, or an act of faith.

In the end, I don’t think the pups gave much consideration to where we went or how we got there. Their only concern was that we go on the journey together. They greeted each new destination with the same routine. A stretch, a shake, and a look back at me which said, “We have no idea where we are and no idea what we’re doing. Let’s find out!”

Unsurprisingly, we found what dogs always find – opportunity and possibility. The opportunity for adventure and the possibility of great discovery along the way. The familiar sentiment is true – we travel to find ourselves. And when traveling it’s certainly helpful to have a guide, or in our case, a couple of guide dogs.


We’re all tourists in this life, and we couldn’t ask for better traveling companions than our dogs

One evening we sat with those dogs, watching a summer sunset, lamenting the impermanence of all things. The sun sets on the horizon, then on vacation and, in the end, on our own lives.

The truth is as simple as it is brutal – you will lose everything.

Nevertheless, in an effort to ameliorate those losses we often struggle feverishly to anchor ourselves to material things and structured identities.

As Emily and I waxed philosophic, Eko interjected with a mighty yawn before curling deeper into my lap. We both laughed with the realization we’d spent our time mourning the waning sun while our dogs had simply savored it. Dogs, like the rest of us, lose everything. But they live in a state of preternatural joy because unlike us, they don’t try to keep anything.


Unless you count when they keep bugging me for more dog treats

Since then, Emily and I vowed to keep hold of fewer things. Both fewer material possessions and fewer immutable ideas about who we are. So who is Emily? Six weeks ago I think she would have told you she’s a doctor. Since then she’s untethered herself from that singular notion and embraced the opportunity of her profession, rather than the identity.

Last week, after an incredible summer of love, adventure and learning, Emily assumed her new role as an attending OBGYN physician. I never doubted Emily’s clinical skills, but thanks to a bit of help from Eko and Penny, I’ve never been more confident of her (and our!) future.

It’s a future which undoubtedly contains loss and heartbreak, but it’s a future we’re eager to experience nonetheless. Because we’ve learned to hold tightly to one thing, and one thing only.

When we ask ourselves the impossible question of who we are each day, we begin our answer, “I’m with you.”


Comments for When Dogs Are The Best Medicine

  1. that was written so well that I even cried a little…. I’m so glad you had a wonderful summer together !… ‘I’m with you’ is the bestest motto to master all things and I’m sure together you will make it. Hugs to you all and a special hug to the energizer bunny Penny :o) it was great to hear from you :o)

  2. Fozziemum says:

    As absent as i have been here i wanted to say Bravo! You got it..both of you got it..we are what this present moment is for us..our loss of Forrest forced us all here to think about who we are..and we are working on being in the moment..no titles..no adjectives just a moment..beautiful words and a gift you have both found…

  3. John Arvin says:

    Welcome back – Will, Emily, Eko and Penny. Your words are very well said.

  4. Elyse says:

    What a heartwarming piece. Welcome back to all of you!

  5. Pat says:

    Dogs, along with humor, are certainly the best medicine. Your philosophy is touching and inspiring. I’ve been picking at the edges of Stuff. Time to get to work.

  6. Victoria says:

    Wow have i missed all of you! So glad to see you had a fabulous summer and are reinvigorated and loving all life has to offer- great words and thoughts in your piece that help me remember what is important – thanks and welcome back – you have been missed!! That goes for Eko, Penny and Emily too!

  7. Wendy Hoadley says:

    Great to see Marking Our Territory come up in my inbox. Past midnight here so I’ll read it again tomorrow. If I wasn’t so tired I’d start my rant about forcing resident doctors to work ridiculous hours. Just because it has always been that way is no reason to continue the stupidity. I’m glad Emily survived!

  8. Jan & Rusty says:

    Great post, words to live by! You had a great summer together, but I missed your posts and pictures much more than I imagined I would. Glad you, Emily, Eko, and Penny are back. I’m with you, too.

  9. KDKH says:

    Glad to have you back! Congratulations to Emily! I’d say you, Eko, and Penny are pretty good healers yourselves to get Emily back on her feet and ready to face her new career in a short 6 weeks. I have no doubt she’ll need a lot of continuing support and you three will be there for her.

  10. You’ve been missed but it sounds like you really made use of those six weeks of “happy”……….You and Emily have so much going for success but the biggest thing is looking at life as an adventure. You will live a happy life together because in my humble opinion you have “the right stuff” ! As I get very close to turning 70, I hear my contemporaries talking about all the “what ifs” and “if onlys” and I say “what’s next??” – – – you two are doing that from the beginning and it bodes well for the future. Penny and Eko are lucky dogs too! As they say………………”it’s ALLLL good” !!

    Hugs, Pam and Sammy

  11. A says:

    What a precious way of making a re-entry to the blogger’s world! And of course back into our hearts! What you’ve shared of your “Life adventure/vacation” sank deep into my mind, thanks, bro! Soooo wonderful to see Eko and Penny!

  12. paws2smile says:

    Fantastic post! It gave me warm fuzzies. 🙂

  13. Emmadog says:

    What a great post! I can tell the break did you all well, but we missed you and are glad to see you back here. Mom has also recently made a lot of changes in how she does things with several big ones coming up this fall. You only get one shot at life, and you should do your best to enjoy it. Work gets in the way, but it should not define or restrict you. We are excited for Emily and her new job as a real Dr. I bet the pups are happy she isn’t a vet! Yikes, would that be a nightmare for a dog!

  14. Pat says:

    Meant to say, love the new look!

  15. meANXIETYme says:

    Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    So glad you all enjoyed your vacation. I hope you are able to continue to enjoy your non-vacation as well.

  16. Midge Mercer says:

    What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Cupcake says:

    You’ve learned a lot from Penny and Eko. We doggies have a lot of important concepts to teach our humans. You and Emily are the best students! Welcome home.

    Love and licks,

  18. Missed you and the wonderful pups, but I’m so glad you took some time out to recharge. This was very poignant.

  19. Sarah Kyllo says:

    This was a really beautiful post! And yes, I may have cried a little too. I have followed your posts/blog for a long time, back when you and Eko were out on the road, and it has been fantastic to share a part of the journey. Very well done and I am happy to hear your family is truly appreciating the simple things that make life great, love, adventure, and companionship.

  20. James Hester says:

    Good to see all four enjoyed your summer. Looking forward to see what the new year has in store for the pups! Love Marking Our Territory.


  21. Ginny says:

    I missed you all!! Happy you had such a special summer.

  22. Jan says:

    As you can tell from all the messages above you and the “kids” were well missed. Definitely for a good cause but nice to have you back and we thank Emily for sharing you with us.

  23. I bet you’ve been writing this in your head all summer! It was well worth the wait. Welcome back, Will. You made my day. Once again, a fabulous post. I’m so glad all of you got to reset your batteries and focus on what’s important.

  24. Awesome post Will! So glad you are back and congratulations to Emily! So thrilled that you both had the wisdom to recognize what is important, now hold on to it and each other 🙂

  25. Ogee says:

    Beautifully expressed. What a great post but I think you might be wrong about one thing: dogs try very hard to keep us. You have been missed…and what a joy to spend some summer time on the lake of my childhood. Did you see Champ? (The Lake Champlain monster!).

  26. Jan says:

    Will and Emily and the boys have t figured out. I’m in my sixty’s and never got it like you all. Your the best “yodas’ I know. Jan

  27. fredrieka says:

    You are just beginning your adventure in this life. Once goals are reached, dreams come true, retirement is where you truly find who you are. Enjoy your adventure. Bound forward as the pups do at the dog park

  28. Kismet says:

    Even though things come to an end, Emily will influence things through the new lives she brings into the world. We’re all part of an unbroken chain.

  29. Eve says:

    Definitely was glad to see you all had a happy summer together even if it was to help Mom move and go thru all the old stuff hidden away as I did last summer with my mom downsizing to just the lake house. It was definitely time to let go of stuff. Can’t wait for the next post and I’m sure they will all be as wonderful as this one is!

  30. Oh it is great to see you BACK!!!!!!!!!!!! Huge Congratulations to Emily for all she has accomplished/endured…….”life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans”….I love that you just enjoy every moment that you have with each other and the pups…….none of us know what tomorrow will bring, but ultimately, as long as you have each other, no matter the obstacles that will always present themselves, then you are blessed and it is all worthwhile!!!!!!!! We soooooooooo missed you!!!

  31. What a great summer, life is too short so glad you four had this great time together!

  32. Awww, what a sweet, poignant and accurate post. So nice to see all you guys back. Best wishes as you start this next chapter! Count us in as observers on the ride as you move forward.

  33. Jan Anisman says:

    So glad to see you all back and share a bit in your adventures but the real gift is what I learn from Will, Emily, Eko and Penny. I so admire your ability to simplify life’s silly complications.

  34. […] inward to true self. That needle led me across the continent, pointed me down the wedding aisle, lifted me to blissful heights, dragged me through hell, and showed me the way out.  That needle is love. Not the love shared […]

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