Lessons from the rink help with twists and turns of practice

Balance in Practice

Risa Jampel, MD

This month's author writes about balancing her life as a dermatologist with her love of ice dancing.

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When people — patients, friends, colleagues, my personal physicians, or new acquaintances — find out that I ice dance, I am often greeted with equal parts of disbelief, curiosity, and fascination. Why do I often get up at 5 a.m., weekends included, to lace up my skates, enter the chill of the ice rink, and practice the same dance patterns over and over again? It’s simple. I love to skate and it is absolutely the only thing that I do just for myself.

I have always believed that well-rounded people make better doctors who are able to relate to different kinds of patients and make the best decisions for that particular patient. I know that all of my life experiences — raising three children, being a spouse, taking care of sick parents, being a patient myself, and having interests outside of medicine, including ice skating, have helped me to become a better and more empathetic doctor.

Taking the ice

Seventeen years ago, when my next-door neighbor encouraged me to join her and her three children in group ice skating lessons at our local rink, I didn’t realize how much richness skating would add to my life. At the time I started skating I was building my solo dermatology practice. My initial plan to be a full-time academic dermatologist/dermatopathologist changed during my dermatopathology fellowship at Johns Hopkins when my children were diagnosed with special needs. I took off some time to get them settled, rethought my career, and decided to practice clinical dermatology.

So I wasn’t looking for any additional extracurriculars when I started ice dancing.

I certainly had enough on my plate. But the instant I stepped onto the ice for my first group lesson I was hooked. I found that the busier I became the more I began to appreciate my new hobby. As the years have passed I am grateful that I have an interest outside of dermatology that truly gives me time away from the “life.” I have scheduled skating into my life, skating on my one day off from seeing patients, the morning that I begin late, one evening, and weekend mornings. For me it has been a priority because it has added so much to my life. [pagebreak]

Being my best

Ice dancing is not about doing double axels, triple lutzes, and flying camel spins. It consists of clean flowing edges, along with all of the turns and stroking that are necessary to dance waltzes, fox trots, tangos, and cha chas, on the ice with a partner, my coach. Competency tests are given by the United States Figure Skating Association to test the skater’s ability to perform specific skills (moves) and dances at increasing levels of difficulty. I have passed 18 out of 23 dances on my way to a gold medal and the highest level adult skills (moves) test.

I really enjoy seeing patients and spend a good bit of the day laughing and joking with them. I truly believe that taking care of patients is a privilege and I take it quite seriously, trying to do my absolute best for each patient. However, I’m sure that I’m not alone in feeling that the practice of medicine these days is a tall order. Hence the need for ice dancing.

Skating recharges me. When I skate I cannot think about anything else except what I am doing at the moment. If my mind starts to wander to the office, specific patients, family, etc., I end up sprawled on the ice. When skating, I cannot multitask. Besides the shower and the swimming pool the ice rink is the only place where I am not literally attached to my smartphone.

Don’t get me wrong, I love other activities, such as a long walk to chat with a friend, reading a good novel, and knitting, but the concentration that skating requires forces me to actually forget about everything else and focus on the task at hand. This ability to focus serves me well when I am facing an office full of patients and need to devote my full attention to the patient in front of me. [pagebreak]

On the other foot

Another great aspect of skating is that it appeals to the student in me. I am back in the position where I am not the expert, doctor, boss, or employer. I am the student and must take instruction and criticism from my teachers. What seems simple and is second nature to my skating teachers is often difficult both in concept and practice to me. They are patient with me. This position of dependency helps remind me how a new staff member may feel when being oriented in my office, or how a patient who knows so little about his/her skin disease may feel when diagnosed with a skin disease that is routine to me.

Also appealing is the fact that skating is visual like dermatology. As a skater I study the tracings my skate blades leave on the ice. I strive to perfect all of the turns: right foot and left, forward and backward, mohawks, three turns, brackets, rockers, counters, and choctaws, just as I strive for discovering a melanoma, the best combination of medications for the distraught acne patient, the perfect wound closure, or the most pleasing filler result. On the other hand, the skater, like the patient, must have realistic expectations. The adult skater will never have the same fluidity and ease on the ice as a skater who has been practicing since childhood.

Even with all of the concentration that ice dancing demands, there is plenty of time for socializing. My fellow adult skaters and coaches have become some of my best friends. They are an interesting, intelligent, and diverse group. They provide me with a community apart from medicine and help to keep my life balanced.

This past August, when I woke up on the Monday morning after my youngest left for college, I was grateful to have the profession that I have worked so hard on these past 26 years and drove to my office. And when my alarm went off that Wednesday morning, my day off, at 5 a.m., I crept out of bed, put on my woolies, grabbed my knapsack with my skates, and headed for the rink.