Partner Advertisements
Anathea Powell {August 2007}

Escape from Alcatraz

There is a saying among the old-school surgeons that the only problem with every other night call is missing half the good cases.

For medical students awestruck by the operating room, there is logic in this old chestnut. Anatomy is laid bare by skilled hands, physiology is made real by cardiac and other operations, and ephemeral problems suddenly make sense when the diseased organ is there for the touching.

More than just the OR, though, good surgeons are also good doctors, and it is hard to not appreciate the challenge of mastering many things. The long hours and stress of being a surgeon are often theoretical quantities to medical students and certainly were to me. Triathlon was a big part of my life in medical school, and I always assumed I could balance some amount of training with being a doctor.

But then internship and junior residency came with a vengeance. In time-honored tradition, junior residents begin to learn their trade by taking care of patients on the floor before and after their operations. Most interns don’t have time to go to the bathroom; eating is a gift; the call room is a mirage; and the OR the promised land (always wanted but rarely, if ever, seen). Outside interests and lives start to take shape only in memory.

Almost everyone, in every specialty of medicine, goes through this period. It’s easy to think that putting in more hours and neglecting to take care of yourself will stave off deaths, result in more OR time, make you a better doctor. But it doesn’t. It took a long time to recognize this, but I finally started running again and eating better in the winter of my second year. Life was almost immediately better and I have to think I was a better doctor. Lab time gave me time off from call and I started more serious training in July, finishing two Olympics and my first marathon last year. I was back in the hospital in January, though, and it was unclear whether I would be able to maintain this balance, and happiness, in my life.

Escape from Alcatraz 2007 proved to be the perfect experiment. It seemed so different from any of my previous races that I had to try to do it, despite taking every third to fourth night call again. Proper triathlon training went out the window, and I just focused on making the most out of the time I had. By the time I left, I had Cherry Blossom, the Frederick half-marathon and Reston 2 mile swim on the boards and I knew that I had done my best to be ready.

With incredible family and friends waiting for me at the finish and at home, with work going well after so many hard times, with my dog healthy again after surgery this spring, San Francisco Bay and the race beyond spread out in front of Alcatraz in suspended animation. At the moment before I jumped into the Bay, it seemed that many of the things I had worked so hard for were finally at hand, and that all of the things I hope for my life are still to come. In 3:23:25, I finished and it was too soon.