April 07, 2020
MD Anderson president: How I’m practicing self-care during the COVID-19 response
BY Peter WT Pisters, M.D.
Like everyone, the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted my work life and daily routines. As president of MD Anderson, my focus in this critical time has shifted to ensuring the protection and safety of our uniquely vulnerable cancer patients, our workforce and protecting our Houston area community from the virus.
Undertaking this proactive response means that my long days are defined by executive briefings, virtual meetings, teleconferences, and virtual team check-ins. I have spent a great deal of time studying epidemiological data, collaborating with health system CEOs in our region and across the country, and talking with business, political, and religious leaders in our community. Along with this, I am talking with pandemic experts regularly and keeping up with rapidly changing news. And most importantly, I am committed to staying connected with our incredible workforce through frequent and transparent communications such as daily update emails and video messages three times per week.
I am proud to lead our outstanding organization through this unprecedented challenge. As a physician who has personally cared for patients during crises, I understand the desire to be a lifeline to those who need us – whether they are patients, colleagues or loved ones – and trying to balance old and new responsibilities even under extraordinary circumstances.
Just as I have encouraged all of our workforce to practice self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for me to look after my own physical and emotional health during this period of increased stress and uncertainty. I know this is necessary so that I can continue to bring my best self to work.
How I cope with stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic
With rapidly evolving updates about COVID-19 and changes to our personal routines, feeling stress or anxiety is normal. For me, following some simple habits, old and new, helps in managing this stress.
Practicing simple protective habits such as washing my hands frequently, monitoring my temperature twice a day, wearing a cloth mask while out of the hospital and practicing social distancing helps me to model the way and reduce the spread of infection.
Staying mindful of my emotional and physical states is also important. When I am feeling stressed, I allow myself to step back and take a break from screen time or the news. I spend those moments instead in self-reflection, sometimes writing my thoughts down, and being aware of the benefits of healthy sleep, and careful time and priority management.
To ensure that I recharge and maintain perspective, I make a conscious effort to stay connected to family and friends. I wind down by spending time with my wife, Katherine, and our two Goldendoodles at home. I also call or FaceTime with my three kids daily, as well as friends and colleagues, as much as possible. Maintaining these connections is vital to grounding me after a long day or week, and it reminds me of what matters most in this challenging time.
While my schedule and stresses may be different, I try to prioritize my physical health by maintaining routine healthy habits. I practice regular portion control during my meals, and schedule moments throughout the day to stretch or go for a quick walk. I commit to self-care by getting ample sleep, working out regularly on my stationary bike and engaging in other activities I enjoy, such as reading for pleasure and taking long walks with our dogs.
I am not always perfect with my discipline around healthy eating — I do enjoy my favorite ice cream bar on occasion, but I know that disciplined self-care practices can help to energize me and contribute to my well-being.
Caring for yourself while caring for others
Each day I am in awe of the incredible courage of patients and frontline heroes, including those at MD Anderson, facing the COVID-19 challenge. I am also inspired by everyone who is working hard to stay balanced under these extraordinary circumstances.
Many people are adjusting to working differently, homeschooling their kids and practicing community guidelines to flatten the curve, or slow the spread of the coronavirus. The uncertainties of today make it more important than ever for all of us to look after ourselves so we can come out stronger and better.
Remember that it is OK to take the time you need to step back and recharge. Whatever that looks like for you – limiting news consumption, reading a book or calling a friend – you owe it to yourself to make the effort.
We are in this together. And, by supporting ourselves and one another, I know that we will get through this.
The uncertainties of today make it more important than ever for us all to look after ourselves so we can come out stronger and better.
Peter WT Pisters, M.D.
MD Anderson President