What the Olympics taught me about well-being

Posted on January 28, 2021 by Carol McPhail
Carol McPhail

Loree Thornton, M.D. data-lightbox='featured'

Loree Thornton, M.D., brings a unique perspective to the physical, mental and emotional demands of residency.

Thirteen years ago, at age 25, the Florida native made her Olympic debut for the United States at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, having proven herself as one of the best women’s hammer throwers in the nation. Competing at that level was worth the years of grueling training and delayed gratification.

“Representing my country and having USA across my chest is one of the proudest moments of my life,” said Thornton, who is performing her first year of surgical residency at USA Health. “After the Olympics, I felt like I could take on anything.”

Pursuing medicine had been in the back of her mind since high school, but, as the first person in her family to attend college, she initially felt that becoming a doctor was something “people like me didn't do.”  Instead, she started out as a journalism major and earned a license to teach, but realized it wasn't for her.

So, armed with perseverance and support from friends in the medical field, Thornton headed for medical school at the University of Colorado. During her third year, she and her husband, Mark, had their first child. “I learned during my third and fourth years of medical school with a crying baby that I could operate on very little sleep,” she said.

Now facing the 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule of a surgery resident, Thornton sees well-being as a matter of “prioritizing what absolutely has to get done outside of work.”

She starts a typical day at 3:30 a.m. with two hours of studying for boards and reading before heading to the hospital. In the evening, she grabs a quick meal and FaceTimes with Mark, an officer in the Army Special Forces in Colorado, and son, D’Marcus, now 2. If she can manage to work out, all the better.

As an elite athlete, Thornton is keenly aware of the many benefits of exercise and “challenging” her body on a regular basis. But lessons learned while training for the Olympics with gold medalist Koji Murofushi also reinforce the importance of the mind-body connection.

Workouts with the Japanese-Romanian hammer thrower would begin with meditation – lying down with the 8.8-pound metal ball on her belly. Murofushi told her: “If (an athlete) carries a hammer in his hands, he feels exhausted. But if he wears it, they become one, and when he moves with it, it is weightless.”

Thornton says she tries to keep the demands of residency in perspective, recognizing that she doesn't have all the answers and that more experienced residents and attending physicians “have her back.”

“It’s about every day trying to get better and knowing you’re not perfect,” she said. “We have to give ourselves the grace to be better than the day before.”

To stay healthy, she tries to work out for a few minutes daily, postponing weightlifting and running until days off. There’s also journaling for reflection and stress relief. “I’m always laughing with my fellow residents,” said Thornton, who is known among her colleagues for her humor. “Sharing a good joke is the healthiest thing we can do.”

During one night shift, a co-worker challenged her to a push-up competition. She lost, but remains undaunted. “I’m secretly training and telling myself, ‘you’re coming back Rocky-style!’” she laughed.

After residency, Thornton plans to complete a fellowship in colorectal surgery. “I might start a nice practice, maybe have one more kid,” she said.

In the meantime, she offers this advice on well-being for incoming residents: “Find something that makes you happy, and prioritize it,” she said. “You need to be selfish in one area, whether it’s reading a book for fun, watching a Netflix show once a week or going for a run. Do it for you, and don’t feel guilty.”

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