Who heals the healers?
When I was ten, my grandfather suffered his third and final heart-attack in as many decades. The attending physician performed a coronary artery bypass, and an angioplasty, but neither was enough. Two days later, he advised us to pull the plug. Several hours later, the ventilator was switched off and Grandpa was no more.
Sadness and anger inundated my body, the former for Grandpa, and the latter directed towards the cardiologist who advised us to unplug the ventilator. I don’t think I’d have ever forgiven him, had I not unwarily walked into his half-open office room and seen him sobbing profusely behind a large oak-wood desk.
When he noticed this unlikely intruder in his room gazing at him with blank eyes, he almost instantly wiped off his tears, found his voice, and asked me how he could help me.
Forward thirteen years: Right outside a South Californian hospital where he has just conducted an operation, an ER doctor mourns the loss of a 19-year-old-patient. Unaware of his colleague snapping the incident, a picture that would later travel (and temporarily rule) the world of cyberspace, the kneeling doctor rests his half-closed fist on a concrete slab, head bowed; and continues to cry.
Among the medical community on social media, there were different explanations as to what this doctor felt. Was it helplessness, devastation, failure, self-doubt, or simply plain old remorse? Or maybe a combination of some, all, or even none of those emotions?
Whatever the doctor is feeling, and despite the image’s low quality resolution, two things are for certain: emotions are oozing out of the image, and medical professionals can relate to this image. And why is that? Because healthcare providers have been long considered apathetic, dispassionate, and unemotional, almost demonic figures that only care about their pay check; this image has been able to conveniently shatter all such stereotypes.
The general public does not realize that it is not the person, but the job that requires strength. Physicians are not devoid of personal emotions; however, their role requires them to limit the demonstration of these emotions.
If you look at physician burnout rates, half of all med students experience burnout, 25-75% of residency professionals experience burnout, and about 30% of doctors experience physician burnout (with some estimates showing up to 60%). High rates of suicide, depression, addiction, and the use of firearms among the physician community all point towards the copious amounts of emotional stress associated with this profession.
This sacrifice of emotions, that at many times affects the well being of the physicians themselves, is one that patients and their families alike must be made aware.
Going back to 2002, as I exited the cardiologist’s room I asked my mother one question, “Who heals the doctors?” In 2015, I’m still waiting for an answer.
How the medical community responded to losing a patient
Using the hashtags #LosingAPatient and #HoldingBackTears I asked physicians, nurse practitioners, and other care providers what it meant to them.
Here’s what some of them had to say:
@dschwartz20 The anesthesiologist-patient relationship is deeply personal. We grieve but our other patients depend on us to give them 100%.
— Ed Mariano, MD (@EMARIANOMD) May 5, 2015
Others pitched in with interesting answers:
— Chris Flores, MD (@ChrisFloresMD) May 5, 2015
Others spoke their heart:
@dschwartz20 no simple answer, but I think we can honor the patient by holding what we learned from them closely & sharing with colleagues
— Jameson Voss MD MPH (@JamesonVoss) May 6, 2015
@dschwartz20 In ophthalmology we enjoy longstanding relationships-dealing with pt loss & their survivors is hard.Tears if genuine aren’t bad
— Jane Hughes,MD (@janehughesmd) May 6, 2015
Some were emotional:
@dschwartz20 it never leaves you.
— Deborah Gilboa, MD (@AskDocG) May 5, 2015
— leslie garson M.D. (@DrLesGarson) May 5, 2015
Some reiterated the importance of giving it their best shot:
Some were left to ponder, but they quickly move on as many others need their help:
Some helped float the word:
Quote by anonymous ER Doctor:
And in the end, when the life went out of him and my hands could work no more, I left from that place into the night and wept – for myself, for life, for the tragedy of death’s coming. Then I rose, and walking back to the suffering-house forgot again my own wounds for the sake of healing theirs.
This quote from Grey’s Anatomy to conclude it all:
The key to surviving…is denial. We deny we’re tired, we deny that we’re scared, we deny how badly we want to succeed. And most importantly, we deny that we’re in denial.
MD, Dike. ‘Physician Burnout: Why Its Not A Fair Fight’. Thehappymd.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 May 2015.
Pamela Wible MD,. ‘Heart-Wrenching Photo Of Doctor Crying Goes Viral. Here’s Why.’. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 May 2015.