Doctors, Vacations, and the Lost Art of Recharging

Jodi Cash

June 24, 2022

Like most physicians, David Iannitti, MD, leads a demanding life. As chief of the Division of Hepato-Pancreatico-Biliary (HPB) Surgery at Atrium Health (Carolinas Medical Center/Cabarrus) and director of Surgical Operations at the Levine Cancer Institute, he stays plugged into his practice even when he’s off the clock.

Dr David Iannitti and Lauren Iannitti

And like most physicians, he needs time off. One possible difference: He recognizes the need. “You have to recharge the batteries,” he says. “I truly believe that's a major, important thing [for our profession].”

Researchers are noticing. A 2020 survey of nearly 1400 Chinese physicians in BMC found that the highest levels of reported burnout matched the highest levels of “presenteeism,” or being at work when you shouldn’t be because you’re ill or compromised by long hours.

With even the most put-upon residents receiving 2 or more weeks of vacation per year, the problem isn’t necessarily having time. It’s recognizing and prioritizing the need to reboot — and making sure the time taken allows you to do just that. The question for all doctors is … how? What does true time off — disconnected from work, reconnected to self — look and feel like?

Iannitti needed to figure that out, particularly as he put some years on his career and took on more and more responsibility. For him, it had always been travel. He’d had unforgettable excursions to South America and Italy in his pre-doctoring days. The logical conclusion: Use travel to invigorate himself.

Now he travels all over the globe to teach and attend conferences, but he also plans several trips a year for pure pleasure. He’s been to all 50 US states and every continent except Africa and Antarctica — both of which he intends to see in the coming years.

“Traveling, particularly outside of your home country, gives you a different perspective on life and the universe,” he says. “It keeps my mind light and fresh.”

Every medical professional’s reset button is unique. Here’s how to take a more useful look at your time-off approach. With the right mindset and a clear idea about how you want your vacation to make you feel, your time off will be that much more valuable.  

1. Make the Destination Work for You

No one should ever need a vacation from their vacation. Going somewhere to see something you’ve never seen — the Louvre Museum, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids — can be exciting, but understand that you’re traveling with that goal in mind, along with millions of like-minded bucket-listers from around the world. That’s fine if that’s what you crave, but there are ways to plan a getaway that make the destination work for you, rather than the other way around. 

Dr Terra Osmon

As a seasoned travel physical therapist, Terra Osmon, DPT, PT, knows how to evaluate her options and grab an opportunity that suits her needs. Her work has taken her all around the country. To handle the constant change and still maintain a sense of home, she bought an RV to hop from contract to contract with her dog Mochi as a companion. 

This experience has made her both more adventurous and more adaptable, and that translates to how she travels for fun. One of her main holiday goals: Avoid the crowds.

That means booking here when the rest of society is booking there. “I like to follow Scott’s Cheap Flights because sometimes I make my vacation around flights,” she says. “I find places that are [on the] shoulder season to go to. The flights are going to be cheaper. There's going to be less people. It's not going to be just inundated.”

Energy is a key word here: the kind you bring, and the kind you want from your destination. Iannitti chooses destinations based on who’s coming with him and the kind of energy he has for the trip. Sometimes he needs the stimulation of something daring and away from well-trodden routes, sometimes he needs the spontaneity that comes from wandering, and other times he wants something utterly relaxed and all-inclusive. 

“I love sandals, and that's when I know I'm close to being burned out and just need to completely disconnect, not make any decisions,” he says. “If I want to do something, I'll do something. If I don't want to do something, I'm not going to do anything. Everything's laid out for me.”

2. Move at Your Own Speed

Dr Wil Cusano and Rick Steves

Every year, anesthesiologist Wil Cusano, DO, plans a trip with one of his best friends from college to celebrate their birthdays, which are only 2 days apart. This year, they took a trip to Miami, Florida, because they were both in the mood to move slowly. It was a leisurely trip where they prioritized time on the beach and going out to shoot photos, and that’s what Cusano was after.

In general, Cusano has learned to be mindful of how much he tries to pack into a given trip. Even as he’s now stepping back from his role as a partner in his anesthesiology practice, he craves vacations that are a full break from his day-to-day. “My day is in 10-minute segments. Go to the recovery room, go to the holding area, go do a labor epidural, go do this, go do that,” he says. “When I travel, I want it to be exactly the opposite.” 

This is particularly important when he goes to another part of the world. He travels often to Italy, for example, where he feels an ancestral connection, but he’s careful not to overcommit to too many towns or sights in a single trip. “I don't hop from place to place every day or every 2 days. For me, the minimum stay is 4 nights,” he says. He’s particularly careful about how much he tries to do upon arriving. “Realize that jet lag is a real thing and don't try to be too adventuresome in the first 36 hours,” he suggests.

When it comes to moving between destinations, Osmon calls on what she learned from living in an RV — you feel the weight of whatever you bring with you. “When you're moving between multiple cities, catching multiple trains, thinking about that is quite literally baggage,” she says. If you plan to travel more than your roundtrip flight, keep it as light as you can. 

3. Disconnect, No Matter How Much It Hurts

On the first day of a resort vacation in Turks and Caicos, Iannitti waded up to the pool bar to grab a drink. About 10 minutes later, he realized his phone was in his pocket. When he got out of the pool, it was too late. No heroic measures could save it.

“That was the universe telling me, ‘We're going to destroy your phone because you need the time off,’” he says. “So once you get past the trauma of cutting the umbilical cord from [your phone], it's very freeing. I like to say that good news can always wait, and bad news will always find you. So don't worry about it.”

In reality, the ability to disconnect requires forethought — and maybe a shift in mindset. Iannitti makes sure that he’s communicated all that he needs to his team so that they can operate smoothly in his absence. Once that’s done, he doesn’t wonder, Are they doing what they need to? Can they handle everything while I’m gone? Instead of worrying, he consciously treats his vacations as an opportunity to demonstrate total confidence in his teammates.

For Cusano, restorative disconnection equates to giving himself time to wander. He makes a list of the things he really wants to see and then he leaves the rest up to fate.

He was once doing just that at the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, when he heard a familiar voice. At first he thought it had caught his ear, because he could understand the man speaking English with an American accent. It’s just a tour guide, he thought at first. But then he recognized it as the voice of the tour guide.

“I turn around and sure enough, it's Rick Steves,” he says. “I had the Rick Steves Spain book in my hand. I said, ‘Rick Steves.’ He stopped. He's the nicest guy. We took pictures. It was really cool.” 

But to Cusano, that kind of kismet is only possible when you’re not rushing around too fast to notice what’s around you.

4. Define the Final Feelings and Strive to Feel Them

It’s easy to say a vacation should leave you feeling rested and ready to go back to work. But go deeper. What do you really want to be feeling when it’s over?

As someone with a high energy job who loves action-packed vacations — with activities like rappelling down waterfalls, jumping off cliffs, or cycling cross country — Osmon combats fatigue by cherishing every moment of the experience. For her, vacations generate two very distinct feelings: gratitude and connection. “[It’s about] taking the time to be with the people you love and celebrate and share time,” she says. “It's also about giving yourself time.”

When Iannitti returns to his practice, he anticipates that the first couple of days will be tough. But he’s found that by acknowledging that reality and reminding himself how worthwhile his trip was, it’s all good. Plus, there’s this one little rule he lives by: He always has his next vacation booked. After an upcoming trip to Grenada, he’s already got trips to Maine and Italy (where he’s in the process of obtaining citizenship) on the books. 

“The second you put that phone back on, you are off to the races … but that's okay,” he says. “You're mentally prepared for it. Nose to the grindstone, and you're thinking about your next trip.”

Jodi Cash is a writer, editor, and photojournalist. She is currently hard at work on a documentary film about 70s-era marijuana smugglers and running The Seed & Plate , which features stories of sustainable food, farming, and community.

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