Vacation: A Necessary Prescription for a Healthy Life

This week, I embark on a vacation – my first – in more than two years. That seems rather sad, right? It’s certainly not healthy; I’ll admit that freely. But come on, admit it…I’m not alone. Per the U.S. Travel Association, Americans collectively did not use 662 million vacation days in 2016. More than half of all working people in the United States forfeited paid time off at the end of the year.  Self-employed people suffer the worst — if they aren’t working, they are actually losing money. The process of vacating must be a prescription then, as surely as any other, for our health.

Look it up in the dictionary:

“late 14c., ‘freedom from obligations, leisure, release’ from Old French vacacion and directly from Latin vacationem: ‘leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service.’

“Meanings ‘state of being unoccupied,’ ‘process of vacating’ in English are early 15c. meaning ‘formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment’ (schools, courts, etc.) is recorded from mid-15c.”

bicycling on the beach under a palm tree

Historically, recreational travel – i.e. vacation – was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. This sometimes took the form of the Grand Tour, which for British tourists usually began in Dover, England, and included luxurious stops in Ostend, the Netherlands or Belgium, Calais or Le Havre, France. Other highlights included trips across the Alps…A huge vacation even by today’s standards (lederhosen optional).


Puritans in early America didn’t tend to take breaks for reasons other than weekly observances of the Sabbath, and in fact, breaks were frowned upon. It’s easy to see our society has held onto this attitude at least in some respect – we don’t travel like we should!


One reason Europeans seem so much healthier than us? They actually use their vacation – or as they call it, holiday. Most employers give employees 4-6 weeks per year of said holiday. Now keep in mind, tax rates over there near 50% and gas prices are $5/per LITER (or roughly $10/gallon). So, don’t get too jealous just yet.


We can still mimic the healthy benefits of vacation that the Europeans have perfected.


Vacation is a prescription for health


Vacation Can Reduce Stress

As a physician, I feel perfectly guilty taking a vacation – and that is something I have to clear out of my own head. I have patients who get very upset I would ever think to be off when it’s their turn to come into the office. Before and after I leave, I bust my toochie to get things cleaned up.  I have to find coverage at three different hospitals. Plus, I have to do all the usual pre-trip mom things: pack the kids, find a dog sitter, make sure everyone’s paperwork is in order. I know many women feel the same way – you almost wonder if taking a vacation is even worth it!


But think about this: Getting AWAY and having down time is akin to meditation. It resets you by breaking your stress cycle. I know that self-care is important to the parasympathetic system (the same system promoted in yoga classes). In addition to the normal rest and relaxation benefits (decreased cortisol anyone?), immersing yourself in new experiences and cultures can promote better family bonding and increased feelings of overall well-being. So, taking a much-deserved holiday will promote better sleep, digestion, and mental health? Um, who couldn’t use some of that mindset medicine?


At the risk of upsetting some, I am vastly opposed to the idea of a “staycation.” That’s like trying to craft your own Robitussin at home. When I’ve tried that – I ended up reorganizing the pantry, sock drawer, and weeding. Hardly a ‘-cation’ by any stretch.

I prescribe that every woman should take four different “doses” of vacations:

  • Family: Even the most disconnected of families benefit from time away together. And I know, family vacations can be stressful (and expensive). If you look at places like Disney World or other “theme parks” the stress seems to outweigh any potential benefits of the vacation. But in fact, science shows the reverse.
  • Friends: A girls’ (or boys’) weekend now and then can rejuvenate your childhood jubilance and sense of mischievousness. Many find it hard to justify leaving their family and work for something like a girls’ weekend. But I find it highly valuable. Think of rejoining your sisterhood in a tribal setting. Frankly, you get benefits from your sister tribe that you just don’t get from anyone else.
  • Couples: This one frequently suffers when there are children involved. In addition to work guilt, mom guilt gets involved as well. Strengthening your relationship will only strengthen the core family unit. And it’s good for kids to see how parents take care of themselves and their relationship. You’re being a better role model for them.
  • Personal: The hardest – preferably by yourself. Solitude. Checking in with the person that matters the most to you… This feels so self-indulgent. I went to a writer’s retreat by myself this April, and boy was it regenerating. I enjoyed reveling in my thoughts and bettering me. I came back with lowered blood pressure and a renewed sense of passion about nearly everything!


Vacation is Easier than You Think!

Vacation increases wellness

Worried about cost? Who isn’t! I found several small weekend retreats that were very reasonably priced – these would be outstanding. Outside North Texas, near Sherman, is a meditation retreat that is incredibly priced. Worried about time? I suggest that even a WEEKEND (or for shift workers a couple of days) for yourself – scheduled, planned at the beginning of the year. You can also start your “vacation year” now!

Most Americans have about two weeks of vacation time. Try breaking it down like this: plan two 5-day holidays with the family and your partner. Then that leaves two long weekends for your friends and yourself. The following year, mix it up and reverse it.

Did I mention that my first vacation alone with my husband in SEVEN years (since the birth of our first child) is happening in 6 days? I suffered from a terrible case of getaway guilt and an appalling shortage of self-care. My cure is to make a conscious effort to follow the above dosing schedule, because I believe it will positively impact my mindset, and thus my health.

So, plan four distinct vacations, get a good dose of some Vitamin “V” …and call me in the morning.

A Stone’s Throw from Better Health: What My Kidney Stone Taught Me

Recently I embarked on a new health journey. I prefer the word “journey,” to crisis or problem. One week ago tonight, I awoke with a searing pain. Like most women, I extracted myself from bed and thought, “Maybe this is gas pain,” or “Maybe I ate something not quite right.” But as the hours ticked by while my sweet family snoozed, I felt as though I was going into labor. Waves of nausea hit, followed by smacking spasms along my sigmoid colon.

As the 3-hour mark hit, I realized I knew what this was. And I needed medical help. So – maybe not the smartest but now the most efficient way – to get to the ER (a place I dread going, even as a physician!), I left my family in bed and drove myself to the emergency room at the hospital I practice. I started vomiting along the way (and this is the reason I highly recommend keeping a barf bag in your car at all times) and stayed on the phone with my mother, in case I passed out from pain.

The ER knew what I had walking in, as did I. A kidney stone. In my case, a 6 mm (1/4 inch) jagged piece of oxalate had decided to birth itself out of my left kidney. Except, it was stuck, about two fingerbreadths north of my bladder. And it was making itself known that it was pissed off.

Using My Own Principles

Now, I highly recommend the principles we talk about in Mindset Medicine, but like yogis and monks, I am still a student of it as well. At the moment, trying to birth the baby I aptly named “Rocky,” I encountered my first piece of “doctor play” in the ER. The ER doctor – a man – told me kidney stones were worse than childbirth (and he knows, how?) and that he had one. And that I could go. At that moment, I asked myself, what did I need, a guiding principle of mindset medicine. And I told him that as a busy mom and OB, I needed to stay in-house and get some fluids, pain medicine, and rest. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away to call urology.

Within a few hours, somehow I was going for laser lithotripsy, which sounds like a game at Chuck E. Cheese but in actuality involves shoving a telescope up my left ureter, and playing space invaders with Rocky. Thankfully, this would be done under general anesthesia.

The urologist explained to my husband, while I was in Margaritaville recovering, that he had to place a stent – a small flexible tube to help my ureter heal. And that removing this could be done myself, and that it was like “pulling out a tampon.” I’m not sure why two middle-aged white men should be having this type of conversation, both of whom I’m fairly certain have never inserted or removed a vaginal menstrual device.

Sometimes Visualizations Don’t Work

I stayed two days, requiring pain medication. At this point, some might ask, couldn’t I just talk myself out of the pain? Create a vision board of how I wanted to feel? Normally, I could try. At this moment, I was in acute pain, and no amount of reprogramming how I felt about the situation could help. The biggest gift to my body was listening to it, and going with what felt right.

I tried to do clinic one hour after discharge. I was there, sure, but not as present as I’d like. It was a fairly easy clinic, and my patients were understanding that I wasn’t quite myself. I received a litany of medications on discharge – bladder spasm medication, pain medicine (2 of them), antibiotics, bladder numbing medicine, oh, and my great friend, Miralax (because you know all those pain meds were going to stop production for at least a week).

Fast forward one day – my husband and daughter got into a car accident, which left the vehicle undrivable. By Saturday, I was still miserable, and the words the urologist told my husband were starting to get to me: “This is really simple and she’ll be great after this procedure – I mean, people just go home and get right back to it.” Now, because of those words, I felt partly incensed, partly humiliated and defiant. When I called him to get instructions on how to remove my own stent in the office, he seemed surprised I was back at work. I did what I loathe to do: I went to Dr. Google. Stories from all over the world came back about people missing two weeks of work, or the immense pain of the stent.

The point was, I let someone else’s opinion get in my head. Who cares if that’s what we thought? Over the past few years, studying mindset medicine, I knew I needed to listen to my body and do what was right for me. This doctor was nice but practiced in an old style. Words I wanted to hear: “I mean she must be really tough to endure all she did, I think with her feistiness, she’ll feel better faster than most, but that’ll really be up to her and her body.” If I had heard those words – I would have felt empowered. Relieved. Listened to and trusted. Why don’t more doctors talk like this?

The following day I woke up looking like I had lip fillers injected three times. Or a hive of bees attacked my face. The diagnosis? Angioedema, a potentially life threatening swelling caused by a number of possible items (think Goldie Hawn in “The First Wives Club”). I traced it back to the Levaquin I was taking (which thankfully I had stopped the day before). I could breathe, I knew I was safe, but still – scary to think that the week continued to down spiral. Kidney stones? No reason to get one. Angioedema? What the heck.

Fake it Till You Make it!

I had enough. And it was time to call on my mindset medicine training to get out of this health funk. Like a good doctor, I showed up Monday morning ready to work. The first thing the nurses asked me on L&D was “How are you feeling?” In truth, I still felt cruddy. My lips were cracked and swollen. It was hard to swallow. I wanted to regale them with stories of my stone, my story. But that wasn’t helping anything. To get out of the funk, I had to start here and now.

“I’m feeling better – stronger every day.” It felt forced and fake to say it, but they didn’t seem to think so. They nodded and agreed. I expounded on it as the day went on and I saw more people who had heard of my tale.

“I’m like Gandalf the great white wizard – none shall pass! But I showed that kidney stone who’s boss,” laughing at my punchiness (keep in mind, I was off all pain medicine so don’t blame my bad jokes on that).

Throughout the day, I started to feel better. Stronger. On the 30-minute drive home I took stock of why I was where I was. How can I own this experience and learn from it? In truth, I wasn’t drinking enough. In my quest to be everything, I was quickly becoming paralyzed to nothing. I was working myself too hard, pursuing perfection. My marriage was in temporary turmoil, as all marriages are at some point. I felt unheard. My kids – perfectly gorgeous in their extreme toddlerness – were in a particularly needy phase. We adopted a new puppy, who delighted in finding fudgy feline treats in the cat box and piddling every 20 seconds on the floor. The house felt disarrayed.

Taking Care of Me First

So I made a plan. I was going STOP. THE. MADNESS. The first person I would take care of was me. My body was my mind incarnate screaming for me to listen to it. I turned off all electronics. I got out my computer to write. I started my emergency self-care plan (we’ll go over this). I doubled-down on the kids, demanding earlier bedtimes, tooth brushing without exemption, and tales of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dragons Love Tacos instead of electronics. My husband made dinner tonight, and although I wouldn’t have cooked it, I thanked him profusely. And I enjoyed it. I pulled the piddle puppy on the bed and let him sleep next to me, with his little snorts and dream woofs making me giggle.

I decided to start with hydration. I knew I needed it. Tomorrow it’s hydration. Water, water, water. That’s one thing my body was telling me I needed (or what Rocky was telling me). I didn’t try to rearrange my life, but to listen to my life. My poor health was a sign of my sick thoughts and my abysmal self-care. And that’s about to change, as it has many times before in many health expeditions.

All along, I was a stone’s throw away from a new health journey. Which starts…now.

5 Things NOT to Say to A Woman Who’s Trying to Get Pregnant

As an OB/GYN who struggled with infertility, I’m all too aware of the well-meaning “comforts” friends and family will sometimes say to someone who is having difficulty getting pregnant.  I say “well-meaning” because they usually are—but dang! They usually cut deep and can leave a woman who’s already feeling inadequate because of infertility feel even worse. This week is National Fertility Awareness Week, and my blog post this week is in honor of all of us girls who heard far too many pointed, personal questions from our loved ones.

  1. Maybe you’re just too stressed. Um, well, yes! I am stressed, thank you for acknowledging that. When you’re busy working full time, trying to time the optimal days for ovulation and then waiting with baited breath hoping Aunt Flo doesn’t come, who wouldn’t be stressed? I’m dealing with it the best I can. Self-care during this time is essential—a yoga class, a long run, massage, or just journaling. But I don’t need people constantly reminding me about my stress levels. For me personally, my favorite retort to these types was “Hey, when was your last pap smear?” That usually caused them to run the other direction. Wink.


  1. Are you having sex? What? WHAT? I have to have sex to get pregnant? This feels like this conversation is getting fairly private and invasive. My sex life is what it needs to be right now. Thank you very much. When did couples TTC (trying to conceive) become the new public fodder? Is this what the Kardashians have done to us?   Must I make a sex tape to prove that this step is in the works? I do get that is how babies are made. We can thank Mrs. Pugh in my 6th-grade health class for beating that point home. ‘Nuf said.


  1. You’re young. You’ve got all the time in the world. Sadly, I didn’t hear this comment as much, but I have patients who get this all the time. Age is a state of mind, but in the world of fertility a woman’s time clock is beating hard against that concept. When you’ve been buying ovulation predictor kits in bulk from Costco, trust me, time isn’t your friend. Most women who are TTC have an enhanced awareness of how time passes us by. And while the “young” comments are appreciated when we’re 40, it’s downright paternalizing at any other age. If a woman can be a CEO at 25, she can be a mother at any age. We want what we want.


  1. You can always adopt! Well, yes. We’ve all heard that. And for some of us, that may be a viable option. But a lot of us yearn for our own And adoption is expensive, like really, really “J. Lo” expensive. Foreign adoptions can cost upwards of $100,000 but can be quicker. U.S. adoption can range from $20-40K, but there’s no guarantee. Most women elect this as a last resort if they really want their own genetic offspring. Adoption is beautiful and admirable but not something every woman who’s infertile wants to hear.


  1. My cousin Jenny tried “Fill in the blanks with something crazy!” Oh yes. The feng shui counselor. And the shaman from the West Indies. And keeping the space below the bed clean and free of boxes and such to avoid “energy blocks.” Trust me, my sisters. I’ve tried a whole bunch of things. But please don’t entice me to spend more money on another jade dragon when I’ve got three at home I don’t know what to do with. I’ll stick with the things I know make me feel good—like meditation, yoga and eating a good clean diet. But chances are, Jenny got pregnant when she did because she did. Not because she ate yak’s blood cheese for 3 months straight. But thanks for another thought that will stick in my head for the next two weeks. Wonder where I can get yak’s blood online? I bet Amazon…


For those of us dealing with the assault of these comments, the best thing to do is smile, and stay your own course. You know what’s right for your body. Desperation won’t help. Neither will yak’s blood.

–Dr. Heather Bartos