Physician discovers work-life balance on the world’s tallest peaks
As a young doctor training during the late 1990s and early 2000s in New York City, days and nights merged. Being a doctor consumed Rakesh Patel, M.D. — work weeks lasted more than 100 hours, with no focus on balance or well-being. The head of the surgical teams ran the operating room with an iron fist, and Patel emulated that leadership style when he started practicing.
“I trained in a time when burnout was glorified,” said Patel, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery and medical director for the U-M Medical School. “I had no work-life balance. My entire identity was wrapped up in being a surgeon.”
A decade later, Patel found that elusive balance, but it wasn’t an overnight change, rather a slow climb to becoming a better surgeon and person — one that started more than 10,000 feet above sea level in Colorado.
The first climbs
Patel got his first taste of mountaineering at Longs Peak in the northern front range of the Rocky Mountains. A friend asked him to join, and Patel was instantly hooked. He took short trips to climb mountains in Washington state and Ecuador. In 2009, the recently hired Michigan Medicine surgeon decided he was now ready for his first major mountaineering expedition to Denali, formerly Mount McKinley.
Although he gained helpful experience in his earlier climbs, Denali was an entirely different challenge with brutal, temperamental weather conditions. He went home early after not reaching the summit.
After two years away from climbing, Patel overhauled his diet and drastically altered his training routine to reach peak performance. Patel began going on mountaineering trips at every opportunity, intentionally focusing on life outside of surgery.
The goal of seven summits
His goal became clear: complete the “Seven Summits,” which are the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. Patel (whom the staff now fittingly refers to as “Rock”) returned to Alaska in May 2013 to conquer Denali and followed it in February 2014 with Aconcagua, South America’s largest mountain and the highest peak outside of Asia. Mount Elbrus in Russia and Kilimanjaro in Africa followed.
In 2019, Patel set out for Nepal to climb Mount Everest. Leaving the second-to-last camp during the summit rotation, he broke a rib because of a violent coughing fit and considered not finishing the climb.
He opted to push on to the high camp in the hopes of summiting the next morning. Back pain, anxiety and surrounding turmoil made for a sleepless night.
Despite the challenges, Patel and his team kept going, reaching the summit of Everest at 29,032 feet. At the top, he cried tears of joy. His view was one he’d seen in pictures countless times. There, Patel took out a U-M flag, which he brings on every climb, and some origami birds.
“At the top, you think about all of the challenges in your life and all the friends and family who have helped you get to this point. When you reach that summit, and you look out to that view, it can be mind blowing,” he said.
“My friend Beth, who I met at the YMCA, was an inspiration to me. Although she had cancer, she lived her life with so much appreciation, courage, and joy. After she passed, Beth’s family gave me several origami birds that she had made. I took them to the summit and set them free for Beth. I felt privileged to honor her at the summit.”
Patel completed the Seven Summits on May 21 of this year by climbing Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.
Mountaineering and medicine
While he became a better climber with each peak, Patel said the most valuable lessons he learned while climbing were those about life — that it must be fully appreciated and that people are not defined by their occupation.
“You end up discovering yourself on these trips. You reveal yourself in this extreme environment.”
Working with others to achieve a common goal, he learned what it means to be a better leader and teammate.
“My leadership style changed directly because of my experiences in the mountains. What I learned continues to make me a better doctor.”
Ascending the world’s tallest mountains with a team of climbers, Patel saw that every person on a team must feel valued and aligned to achieve a common goal. Working together in this manner, he said, leads to success in the mountains as well as the operating room.
“When you’re climbing on a rope team, you’re literally connected to someone via harness to a rope on the side of a mountain, and your success will depend on your ability to do teamwork effectively,” he said.
“Similarly, as a surgeon in the operating room, you may think that you alone are responsible for the success or failure of the procedure. However, that’s not the way it works; the patient doesn’t get better solely because of your hands, it’s a team effort. Success depends on the whole team.”
In the same way Patel built up from smaller peaks to Everest, he has built his way up in his surgery. He now specializes in complex deformity surgeries, but only after years of training with more straightforward procedures.
What he has seen in his travels (children with spinal deformities which could be helped with treatment, or even prevented with more knowledge) has him thinking of the possibilities for the future. He has gone on mission trips to India as part of a fellows rotation, and he has Zoomed with physicians in other countries about complex cases.
Both medicine and climbing taught him resilience in different ways. Both are now part of Patel’s DNA.
“Every single climb and every single surgery have some form of adversity,” he said. “With experience, a calm head and the support of your team, you can overcome any obstacle.”
This story first appeared on the Michigan Health blog.