A Year in Review: On Gratitude

By Dr. Samantha Cheuk

Several years ago, I started a daily gratitude journal.  It began quite simplistic and broad (i.e. listing things like laughter, a roof over my head and good food), but gradually morphed into a way to process both challenging and wonderful moments. I started journaling initially as an attempt to improve my self-awareness and heighten my experience of the world around me. Over time, an interesting phenomenon occurred – the more I reflected on the things that I was grateful for, the more things I noticed throughout my day that I could be grateful for. Although my journal is no longer a daily journal, it has remained a powerful reflection tool during residency. So for this “Year in Review” blog entry, I wanted to share some highlights from my journal that reveal a bit about myself and my experiences with the white coat on, but more importantly, when the white coat comes off.

Gratitude at work

When I reflect upon my year at work, I am grateful for family medicine block time during the first 6 months of the year. It was during this time that I got a chance to get to know my patients better and follow up with them in continuity clinics more independently. When my core family medicine block time ended in June, it was hard to believe my first year of residency had already come to a close and that I would be signing “R2” after my orders the following month.

My second year of residency started off a bit rough, not only because I was back on off-service rotations (orthopedic surgery and general surgery), but because I also had to navigate the sudden death of my uncle who lived in another city. I am so grateful for the comradery and support I received from my surgical co-residents during that difficult time. The call schedule was already tight that month but a resident colleague stepped up and offered to take my call shift (without any expectation of me taking one of his shifts) so I could attend the funeral. I cannot begin to explain how grateful I was to have that burden lifted off my shoulders so I could be present with my family.

One of the exciting parts of being a resident is now knowing a bit more information I could start teaching medical students. This year, I taught first year medical students in the “Residents as Teacher” sessions for the first time. Not only did I enjoy getting to meet the new students and hearing about their aspirations, but I was excited to teach them some foundational concepts for history taking and physical exam maneuvers. It reminded me of how far I have come in my own training and how grateful I was for the opportunity to share the little ounces of knowledge I have gained over the years with the new students.

Gratitude in Advocacy and Wellness

Since starting residency, it has been difficult to commit to serving regularly due to the various rotation schedules. Then an opportunity came up to join PARA as an Assembly member. I decided to apply and learn more about the inner workings of an organization that supports and advocates for residents. At the time, not too many people had applied, so I was thankful I got the position. Through PARA, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a participant in the Resident Physicians in Legislature (RIL) initiative this past November. We spoke with MLAs to advocate for stronger policies to address mental health and addictions, with a focus on the opioid crisis. Although I didn’t know what to expect, I am grateful to have had a positive experience speaking on important issues with local political leaders.

When I reflect on the activities that I enjoy outside of residency, I think about all the ways I like to pursue wellness, whether that is serving others or treating myself. Since moving to a new city for residency, I am grateful to have my own living space to invite family and friends over to without needing to seek permission from roommates first. I took advantage of this by hosting small gatherings like dinner parties and board game nights as well as hosting study groups and an intergenerational women’s book study. I love being able to use my place to bless others. I also began to attend a regular Bible study and fellowship group, which has helped form a strong spiritual community as well. Near the end of this year, I discovered an amazing dance studio with adult drop-in dance classes – perfect for those random schedules! It felt so nice to be able to return to my creative and artistically active roots.

Gratitude in Personal Life

On a more personal level, this year I have had to face many challenges with the health of family and friends. While working in clinic and seeing my own patients, my dad, who lives in another city, became ill and required acute care. I am grateful for my colleagues who were on call and there for him when I couldn’t be. The care my dad received ended up saving his life, and he is doing much better now. I am so grateful for more chances to demonstrate and tell him and my other loved ones how much I cherish them.

The beginning of April brought more challenges with the new cancer diagnosis of a young, otherwise healthy, good friend and the unexpected death of a former classmate. It was a forced reminder that each day was not guaranteed and that there is so much more to life than the daily grind of residency. Everyone has a story and their own struggles and triumphs to navigate, but they need not navigate them alone. Even though it was a challenging time full of tears, hugs, and long phone calls, I am so grateful for my community who prayed for hope and peace, checked in periodically, and brought comfort and support with words of encouragement or an attentive ear.

Communities not only mourn together, but we also celebrate together. This year, I am grateful to have been able to attend several weddings and bachelorettes where there was dedicated time to reconnect, laugh, and be reunited with friends both near and far. Weddings are such a beautiful time to celebrate love and friendship, and I was grateful to be able to witness and stand beside many of my good friends as they start the next chapter of their relationships.

As for myself, I too am grateful for being able to start a new chapter in a beautiful way! On my first vacation of residency in April, I travelled to California with my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, as well as my partner. We went on breathtaking hikes in Yosemite National Park and watched a beautiful sunrise where beams of sunlight peaked through the clouds, shining on the valley below. It was there that I had the joy of wholeheartedly agreeing to marry the love of my life! I was so touched by the way the whole proposal unfolded and felt incredibly special to have a personalized song about our relationship that was written, recorded and performed for me by my fiancé as part of the proposal.

Looking back, this year had many challenging and wonderful moments that brought a new meaning to the words “tragedy” and “joy” for me. Both the tears that brought me to my knees and the smiles that made my cheeks hurt have made me stronger, inspired, more compassionate and incredibly grateful.

Thank you for taking the time to pause, read and contemplate this entry on gratitude. I hope my reflections are relatable and will encourage you to take a moment of reflection for yourself, especially as we enter into the holiday season.

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Dr. Samantha Cheuk is a Public Health & Preventative Medicine resident physician at the University of Alberta.