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Marine-turned-medical student turns aim toward combating burnout

Mar. 20, 2014

Christopher Sinsabaugh

Christoper Sinsabaugh is one of the lead organizers of the FIRM symposium.

IU School of Medicine fourth-year medical student Christopher Sinsabaugh, a former Marine who served in Iraq, is no stranger to tough working conditions.

But even for a member of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004 to 2006, medical school is a challenge. During his third year of classes, while balancing a home life, school and finances, as well as several personal losses, Sinsabaugh experienced strong feelings of burnout -- a physiological condition characterized by long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.

Now, recovered from his struggles, he's taking action as one of the organizers of Finding Inspiration and Resilience in Medicine, or FIRM, a student-led symposium for IUSM faculty, residents, fellows and medical students taking place April 25 at Eskenazi Health’s Rapp Family Conference Center.

“I’ve literally dug ditches for a living,” said Sinsabaugh, a former member of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Company G Weapons Platoon. But being grateful for the opportunity to serve as a future physician isn't always enough to prevent struggles as a student and healer.

"The most important thing is to be honest with yourself, and know that someone else is going through the same troubles," he said. "You can't fix anything if you don’t admit that there’s a problem.”

Sinsabaugh's personal inspiration to overcome struggle comes in part from his military experience in Fallujah, Iraq. After a friend experienced severe medical trauma during a blast from an improvised explosive device, he was on a mission to “come back, get educated and not feel as helpless as I did there.”

"That experience helped me to be inspired, resilient and stay focused," he said. "Inspiration and calling are linked. Thinking about how you got where you are provides you with something concrete to fall back on. Resilience is the ability to keep moving forward when things seem not to be allowing you to move forward -- it's the ability to get back up when something is knocking you down."

Sinsabaugh also remains grounded through spending time with his family and strengthening his faith. During his recovery from burnout, he and his wife "doubled down on church," where they discovered renewed energy and purpose. He also finds motivation speaking to fellow medical students about the troubles they've experienced.

The idea for a symposium on burnout first arose during a course titled "Leadership in Medicine," led by Richard Gunderman, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiology and imaging sciences, pediatrics and philosophy, which sparked Sinsabaugh and fellow students’ interest in addressing the topic. With support from the IUSM Office of Educational Affairs and Office of Faculty Affairs and Professional Development, FIRM was born.

According to the 2012 Physicians Foundation Report, a survey of the AMA Physicians Database found the majority of those surveyed had a negative view of their career, as well as pessimistically viewed the future of health care. Yet the topic often remains taboo among medical students, especially since many believe they should feel complete commitment to a profession they also regard as a personal calling.

FIRM will bring high-caliber experts on burnout to campus to explore and provide practical solutions to the condition. The symposium also will be an opportunity for students to personally address the difficult topic through conversations on resilience and their own personal sources of inspiration.

"We're starting a conversation to drill down to the roots of burnout," Sinsabaugh said. "The vision behind the project is to effect change in the health care profession."

FIRM sponsors include the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, Department of Neurology, Department of Surgery, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Office of Educational Affairs, Office of Faculty Affairs and Professional Development, Office of Continuing Medical Education, IU Health, St. Vincent Health and Eskenazi Health.

Participants can pre-register online.

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