Physician Health

A quest to never waste a step

For years, she had trained to get to this time and place. All that Christine Sinsky, MD, had learned and all the technique she had acquired would be rigorously and passionately applied to do better, be faster. She set her sights on the end. Now to make it across the line.

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Rising out of the waters of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, after swimming 2.4 miles on a warmer-than-you’d-like September morning, Dr. Sinsky runs to the changing area to start the 112-mile bicycling leg of the grueling, gargantuan Ironman triathlon. Break through that leg and all that remains is the trifling matter of a 26-mile marathon.

But something is off.

Dr. Sinsky—the 59-year-old internist, the AMA’s vice president of professional satisfaction and one of the nation’s leading lights in the transformation of medical practice to prevent physician burnout—is having trouble seeing out of one eye.

Is the lens of her sunglass smeared? Is it just a residual artifact of the swimming goggles that Dr. Sinsky had cinched extra tight to keep out water during the swim? No. It is an amigrainous migraine. She gets a few migraines each year, though it has never happened during a race before.

With impaired vision, Dr. Sinsky cycles for 75 miles as her arms become increasingly tremulous with fatigue. What do you do when you cannot see the way forward? What is the right way to proceed when you have lost the feeling for the path ahead?

Dr. Sinsky, ever attendant to benefits and risks, concludes that it would be imprudent to continue given the course ahead.

“Can’t see. Can’t hold the handlebars. Dangerous downhills to come? Better stop,” she says, looking back on the ill-fated 2016 race that is registered with those three ugly letters: DNF—did not finish.

But to those who know and admire Dr. Sinsky, it would come as no surprise that the next September she was back in Madison for another go at the Ironman. They will tell you about her exacting zeal—the animating spirit that keeps her looking for new, more efficient and less burdensome means of achieving the desired outcome: to take the next step, to finish the race, to move medicine forward.                                                                                             

Read this story in its entirety as featured in the latest issue of AMA Moving Medicine