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Dr Riaan Van der Wart, family physician, Prince Rupert

I was born under the big sun in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa where I also completed my medical training in 1997. It was soon after graduation that I was able to start the journey I had always dreamt about; to explore the world. With my degree in hand, I was able to see more than 60 countries and work in London, New York, Belfast and Barcelona. It was during a contract on a cruise ship, while sailing past the glaciers of Alaska, that I decided to make Canada my home. I started as a family physician in Prince Rupert and joined my best friend from university in practice. I was excited. 

It was 10 years later, in 2017, when my world crumbled. I was divorced, burnt out, and in severe financial distress. The many late-night shifts, the multitasking, the college inquiry, and the emotional exhaustion were only a few reasons for my malady, but when during one ER graveyard shift I made a near-fatal mistake, I knew I had to do the one thing that I had refused up until then. I had to ask for help. 

I believe that it is my insatiable curiosity, my hopeful nature, and my eagerness to thrive that set me on a path of deep exploration in search of healing. I had to find my “medicine.” This required exploration into why I allowed this destruction to happen to me, why it’s happening to my colleagues and why I, as a doctor, do not have the tools to heal. A sabbatical allowed me precious time to research burnout, its pathology, its recommended management, and also to spend some time in the wild west of healing. This lead me on a path far outside the box of my training, and even my way of thinking. It was not always easy, but as it’s in our nature as doctors, I persevered in my quest to find some answers. 

Five years later and as I sit here typing, I ask myself: Am I better? “Yes, I am. Deep inside me, there is a spark again.” Have I returned to full-time family practice? “No I haven’t.” Would I like to? “No, I do not want to.” Can I still be of value? “Yes, more than ever.”

I would like to share some of the things I have learned on the journey, including the neurology of burnout. We are only now starting to understand large brain networks and how living in a chronic sympathetic mode destroys important parts of our brain. These are areas that we as doctors need in our critical thinking capacity as problem solvers. Another, is the inability to explain spiritual health, even though it is one of the most important aspects of wellbeing.

I have also learned the value of our Indigenous healers. They understand we do not only have a physical body, but many bodies. One of which is the emotional body and just like burn wounds on the flesh of our biological body, burnout eats the flesh of your emotional body. It is here that we must understand and separate the emotional body from the physical so that you can dress the wounds in order for them to heal. 

Dr Riaan Van der Wart As an artist, I am lucky. For me “art” is a healing method, a tool I use to understand the anatomy of the emotional body. With its narrative, you gather the physiology and its pathology. It teaches you to always find beauty in any circumstance.

In my journey there were many moments of beauty. I have so much gratitude for the support and love offered by my family and friends during the worst of times. In the past five years I took the time to ponder one big question: “Is it not just because you don’t love your job?”

I am glad to say, “no it is not because I do not love my job. When I am asked for help; with honesty, respect, true need, and the intention to work with me so that we can heal, there is nothing I would rather do”. 

Dr. Van der Wart is planning an exhibit of his art created during burnout and has a dream to raise money to set up a Physician Health Centre. If you would like to support him please contact:

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