This month I spoke with Chelsea from The Turquoise Traveler. She’s an ex-physician, digital nomad, and life coach extraordinaire. She had the guts to quit her residency program, move to South Korea to teach English, and explore exactly what it was that would make her lead a full and fulfilling life. She helped me in the early stages of Passports and Preemies and her desire and passion to help others seeps into everything she does. Best said in her own words, “My burnout actually provoked an entire soul searching expedition that ended in me doing a total pivot and career change out of medicine”.
Read on to see why I’m so intrigued by Chelsea, her shift from resident to English teacher to a life coach, and why I think that she is a total badass for quitting medicine and going fully nomadic.
Tell me about your background. Where do you call home? If you’re currently traveling, where in the world are you?
I was born and mostly raised in Northern Alabama. I lived in Michigan for 7 years in elementary school and worked for 18 months in Pittsburgh, but otherwise spent the rest of my life in the Southern US. Right now I am riding out this global pandemic in Vietnam and unsure (like most of us), what my future travel plans look like.
What kind of medicine did you practice? How long did you practice?
I was an OBGYN resident for only 18 months. I practice obstetrics and gynecology and spent most of my time in the labor and delivery unit of the hospital helping deliver babies into the world.
Why did you choose to become a doctor?
Looking back, I now see that I chose to be a doctor for all the “wrong reasons”, meaning reasons that were not sustainable for my happiness and well being. I thought I wanted to become a doctor to help people, but really I was mainly looking for a sense of external validation and the prestige and recognition that came along with wearing a white coat. All through college, I felt so insecure with who I was and was looking for a way to prove myself. My heart was never really in it, but going to medical school and becoming a doctor seemed like the most badass thing I could think of at the time. I was more concerned with impressing others and receiving that external validation than turning inwards and doing the hard work of discovering what I truly wanted from my life.
How did you choose which field to enter?
For me, I chose to become an OBGYN because it was the specialty I hated the least. I know that sounds bad, but it came down to this negative process of elimination. Working with women’s health seemed like something I could get passionate about and there seemed to be a potential for positive impact.
Tell me a little bit about your road to MD. Where did you attend school, how long did it take you to graduate?
My road to MD was tough and made even harder by my drive towards perfectionism and wanting to be “the best”. I went to the University of Alabama in Birmingham and graduated in the typical 4 year period. I spent so much time in the library and in the hospital, studying and working my butt off. I kept telling myself it would all be worth it once I became a doctor, but really that was just a lie I told myself to try and explain away the fact that I was miserable and in the totally wrong career for me.
I’m a huge advocate of preventing medical burnout. What does physician burnout mean to you? Have you experienced burnout yourself?
Yes, I think preventing medical burnout is such an important topic. To me, physician burnout is similar to burnout in any other career and it comes down to an energy problem. The work you are doing is draining your energy more than your ability to recharge your energy. It becomes a vicious cycle because the more burned out you become, the less likely you are to engage in the self-care activities required to recharge your energy. I’ve absolutely experienced this myself and my burnout actually provoked an entire soul searching expedition that ended in me doing a total pivot and career change out of medicine.
How are you trying to combat or prevent burnout?
I think the simplest way to think about preventing burnout is to do more of the things that give you energy or recharge your energy and to do less of the things that drain your energy. That means getting real with yourself about what you need to cut out of your life and what types of self-care activities are non-negotiable for you.
For me, my burnout prevention strategy involved a total life makeover and career change. Yours doesn’t necessarily have to look that drastic. There were a lot of things I stopped doing. I stopped making career choices and life decisions based on other people and started looking inward (journaling, meditating, etc.) and making decisions based on my intuition. The first big decision I made based on my intuition was to leave medicine and start pursuing a career as a life coach and digital nomad. I also stopped taking Adderall, a drug I had been prescribed during college, and took all through medical school. I stopped drinking alcohol. All of these changes made for some pretty drastic shifts in my daily life.
The second piece is what I needed to add to my life to continually recharge and regenerate my energy. I added in a full, guilt-free rest day every week. I started getting 7-8 hours of sleep on the reg, and I made daily meditation, movement, and gratitude part of non-negotiable self-care practices.
Everyone’s burnout prevention strategy will look different, but for me, it’s been so helpful to focus on these two key pieces: what drains your energy and what gives you energy and approach it from that framework.
I know that you moved to South Korea to teach English. Tell me what that experience was like.
Yes, I did! I moved to South Korea to teach English as a transitional year while I learned all about life coaching and building an online business. I needed a way to make money when I quit my residency program and also wanted to start traveling or live abroad so teaching English in Asia seemed like the perfect way to do that. It was such an immersive cultural experience; living and working in a foreign country expanded my worldview dramatically. I was able to meet other English teachers from all around the world including the UK, Australia, and South Africa, and have become part of an international community. Since hiking is my favorite activity, I explored some of the gorgeous natural beauty of South Korea. I lived on Jeju Island which is known as the Hawaii of South Korea and spent my weekends hiking the Olle trails which span around the entire island.
Tell us something about South Korea that surprised you! What did you like to do there?
I love how in South Korea they have such a hiking culture. Even the older generation gets all geared up in super colorful hiking attire and they bring elaborate picnic lunches with them up to the mountain tops. And when I say elaborate, I mean- sometimes they even bring full cooking stoves up with them and cook Korean BBQ at the summit.
Now that you’re a certified life coach, how has that changed your life? Do you have any regrets?
Becoming a certified life coach was really a journey of becoming more of a human being. Medicine tends to beat humanity out of you because humans are imperfect and make errors and in medicine, this is not acceptable. I understand that in a logical way, but functioning in that world was not healthy for me, and I worry that it is unhealthy for many others as well.
My life now is more full, complete and fulfilling, and more authentically me. My days include significantly more free time for spontaneity and to do things I love, like go on hiking adventures, reading and doing yoga. Since I am now doing work that is aligned with my core beliefs and values, I also feel more connected to myself and the world around me.
I don’t have any regrets at all. I am so appreciative of every moment that led me to where I currently am and I know that it keeps getting better.
I know that after you were done teaching in South Korea you moved to Vietnam, where you’re currently residing and riding out the pandemic. What’s it like living there? Is it all that you thought that it would be? If you were to relocate, where do you see yourself going to next?
I came to Vietnam after I finished my year-long teaching contract in South Korea as the first stop on my digital nomad journey. The original plan was to stay in Vietnam for a few months and then move on to another country in SE Asia (maybe Thailand or Bali). I wanted to live and work in a new country every few months and in that fashion, travel the world while working remotely. However, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries closed their borders (for obvious reasons) and I made the decision to stay in Vietnam where I had already started developing a community.
I’m currently in Da Nang, Vietnam, and have been here since early February. I live minutes from the beach and am part of a thriving ex-pat community and feeling so grateful to be “stuck” here for the time being. I definitely plan on relocating and living a nomadic lifestyle as soon as travel becomes feasible again. There are so many places on my bucket list, but realistically I’m just waiting to see which countries will open their borders first.
Before ending, tell me one fun fact about yourself unrelated to medicine!
In middle school, I was very into acting and actually ended up starring in a local movie where I played a child detective. If you want a good laugh, go check out Abbie Girl Spy timepiece on YouTube. I’m the one who keeps flipping her hair every 2 seconds.
Where can people find you on social media?
I hang out mostly on Instagram where my handle is @theturquoisetraveler.
If you want to talk about your experience with burnout or know someone who does, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more interviews on medical burnout from physicians and nurses, click here.