Lessons on Burnout from a Fire Chief

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When the fire of residency is burning you up, remember to stay calm, stay low, keep your head up, and focus on what matters most.

It was a dark, calm night at the fire station. I had just dozed off for what I’d hoped would be a long, peaceful night of rest. Out of nowhere, the tones sounded. “Engine 3, need you to respond to Williams Road for a structure fire.” Quickly coming back to reality from my dreamland, my fellow firefighters and I went to work. We donned our gear and quickly responded to the scene.

There it was.

You could barely see the house because of all the fire. I could make out the front door, but only because the house looked like a wall of black shadow and the front door, well — it had flames billowing out that lit up the yard like daylight.

I approached the entrance, fire hose in hand. I felt my partner’s hand on my back. That was the sign; we were going in. I opened the nozzle and began to spray. Eventually the fire was knocked back from the doorway. Not that the smoke-filled entryway was much more inviting, but we went in anyway — because that’s why we were there. Once inside, I felt as though my ears were being melted off my head. It was painfully hot. I remember thinking, “Stay calm, stay low, keep your head up, and make sure everyone is out.” We fought fire for what felt like hours, eventually turning that blazing glow into a gloomy, dark, foggy mess.

It was then that I felt someone tap my shoulder. I turned to find my fire chief standing next to me in outdated fire gear. He wasn’t even wearing a breathing apparatus. “You guys doing ok?” he said. “I was trying to get you on the radio, but didn’t get an answer.”

This remains one of the most memorable moments of my 15-year firefighting career. It wasn’t because it was the hottest, biggest, or longest blaze. It was because of my chief.

He was a true leader, and everyone looked up to him. He wasn’t just someone in charge who told you what to do; he was a leader who knew what to do, because he could do it. In fact, he was exactly what I wanted to be. He led by example. He led by respect. He led by dignity. He cared about his people and knew how to play up their strengths and protect them from their weaknesses. He kept his team focused on what mattered without getting stuck in the weeds.

He would — and did — run into a fire for us.

Burnout in residency is real. Often, we get burned out because we are stuck in the weeds. We have difficulty focusing on what truly matters most. This is where leadership should prevail. Are you feeling burned out because you can’t stop focusing on the weeds? Are you struggling with someone who’s not a true leader? Are you, yourself, not a good leader?

To get through residency, we must remember the qualities of a good leader and portray them. When the fire of residency is burning you up, remember to stay calm, stay low, keep your head up, and focus on what matters most.

Eric McDonald, MD

Eric McDonald, MD

EMRA RC-EM Representative, Emergency Medicine Resident, University of Mississippi, Jackson, MS
Eric McDonald, MD

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