Allison Chrestensen, MPH, OTR/L
For much of my career as an occupational therapist, I struggled to navigate the emotional and ethical challenges related to working in healthcare. Working within a system that places value on dollars and efficiency, rather than on people made me feel frustrated and powerless. To add to the increasing productivity and administrative pressures, I was bullied by superiors and co-workers. I felt further weighted down by the unexplored grief I carried from absorbing the suffering of my patients and their loved ones. For years, I pushed my sadness, frustration, and anger deep inside so that I could continue to do the work I loved.
Eventually, I reached my edge. Where once I had felt confident in my clinical skills, I became filled with self-doubt. The love I felt for my job became poisoned by resentment. I stopped sleeping. I cried all the time. Recognizing that this way of life was no longer sustainable for me, I walked away from clinical practice.
Three years later, I nearly lost my life to a catastrophic cardiac event. Everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a clinician and what it means to be a patient dissolved.
I turned to mindfulness and the health humanities to integrate my experiences. It took some reflection for me to realize I’d suffered burnout.
Caring for others had nourished a fundamentally human characteristic in me. Yet, I’d completely ignored my own wellbeing and had regarded this as a kind of noble sacrifice.
I began to understand that caring for myself required a different kind of attention and intention.
I recognized that my patients are part of my story, and in turn, that I am a part of theirs. This knowledge enables me to open myself to the emotions that arise in every joyful and painful moment, rather than pushing them away.
Everything I offer here is born out of my own personal and professional journey. Mindfulness and mindful self-compassion have helped me to know myself better, to accept what is real and true in the moment, and to treat myself with the same tender loving care that I give to my patients. Engaging with the humanities has expanded my perspective on the human experience and provided me with a resting place when I am at a loss for words of my own. Writing offers a release from the weight I carry—a way to externalize my thoughts and feelings.
My approach is grounded in the belief that shifting our healthcare system to one that is grounded in the human experience of illness and care requires both individual- and system-level action.
Change begins with you.