The Optimized Doctor

Wellness vacations


It’s best practice to not set an alarm when on vacation. The point of vacation, after all, is to escape the rock-hard constraints of the daily grind. But the melody pulling me from slumber wasn’t coming from my phone. It was the ethereal chant of Fajr, morning prayer rising from surrounding mosques. I was in the medina of Marrakesh sleeping in a hotel that was once a home, called a riad. Some parts of the building date from the medieval period. Fajr occurs at dawn, before morning light. Getting from the bed to the toilet was treacherous – you must traverse cold, uneven steps to get there. Yet I had to get dressed: Morning yoga on our riad rooftop would start with sunrise. I guess even my vacations have agendas: I was in Morocco not only to holiday, but also to improve mind, body, and spirit.

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Wellness vacations are a rapidly growing treatment for burnout. They are a pulse dose of burnout therapy with a potential for lasting remission. For those who can afford them, your travel is fully arranged and activities such as yoga, cooking classes, hikes, and meditation are scheduled. This was my first wellness trip and it was transformative. Many times have I tried to disconnect from the distractions of life, but there is nothing so purifying as having no phone or Internet access. When I made peace with the reality that I couldn’t access EPIC or email, it was like a ringing in the ears had lifted: I could hear silence again.

This trip took us to three locations: Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountains, and the edge of the Sahara Desert. Yoga was prescribed twice a day. Morning practice was 90 minutes of shedding layers as the sun rose and our bodies warmed to increasingly difficult sequences. This was followed by Moroccan breakfast with fellow travelers from around the world. All were professionals and I wasn’t surprised to learn that burnout is common to many. I was surprised to realize that sharing stories with strangers about the vicissitudes of life was deeply bonding. (Or perhaps it was doing yoga inversions together.)

Also surprising was how easy it is to get lost in the maze that is Marrakesh. And yet, it was rewarding. Finding our way back through the mass of people, donkeys, and motorbikes along dark, unmarked alleys – without Waze – was intensely clarifying. Few things help you be present “in the moment” as being adrift and disoriented in a foreign city.

There was relaxation too. We made Khobz, traditional Moroccan bread by mixing just the right amounts of flour, yeast, sugar, oil, water, and salt. Knead, add, knead, add, and stop when done. We then walked a half mile to give our doughy creations to a baker who, with blackened calloused hands, worked an ancient communal oven. Then we waited patiently for the sardines ahead of us to finish baking first. I’ve no idea how long it all took – I had nowhere else to be.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

The next day we hiked to a village in the Ourika Valley. There we had lunch at the home of a local Berber family. They served us their best tea, vegetable couscous, and lamb tagine while their chickens and donkeys watched us curiously. It was Thanksgiving (not on the Berber calendar of course) and sharing a meal prepared by a faraway stranger who doesn’t speak English makes you feel thankful in a refreshing way. Way more alike than different we are, I learned.

We finished our trip with a little desert “glamping.” The vast expanse of desert, interrupted by swirling winds and camel bellows quiets your mind, opens you to the immensity of life. That night we sat close to a bonfire and watched the Milky Way drift across the true black sky. I woke the next morning to the best night’s sleep I’ve had all year. My last wellness activity was unplanned, but meaningful nonetheless. As it happens, there’s no hot water in the desert and a bracingly cold shower marked the end of my treatment/vacation.

If the opposite of burned out is repleted, then I am. Also grateful to have such a transformative experience, for friends new and old who love me, and for hot water. Prescribe yourself one if you can.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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