Why doctors shouldn’t leave their emotions behind

Part of the reason I became a physician was because I got tired of watching those close to me as they suffered through illness and eventually died, while I stood helplessly by, unable to do a thing.

Throughout my training I watched as my mentors interacted with their patients, displaying a political correctness matched with just enough outward emotion so that there was no telling the difference between the good news and the bad.

“Don’t let your emotions get too involved” and “Never take those feelings home with you” were things I heard often. Yet there are some patients and families that you can’t help but get attached to. You endure the ordeal with them. In a sense you become part of the family. So as much as I respected my mentors, I let those words go in through one ear and out the other. I treat every patient as if they were a member of my family. It helps remind me why I went into medicine in the first place.

Its not until you go into practice, and step into the shoes of your mentors, that you realize what a sharp double edged sword this relationship is. There is no better feeling than the elation and pride you feel as you watch a patient who entered your life with one foot in the coffin, walk out of the hospital on his own two feet. Sometimes it may take days, sometimes it may take months, but there comes a point where your treatment transcends medicine and you find yourself praying with the families, encouraging the patients, and instilling hope in everyone that anything is possible.

On the other hand, there is no greater pain than those rare occasions in which you lose a patient without an adequate explanation. Whether its an elderly lady who’s life you spent a month saving only to have her suddenly pass away days before her scheduled release, or a young healthy female who walks into the hospital with a seemingly common problem yet fails to survive just days after surgery, it never gets any easier dealing with the loss. Complications happen. They happen to anyone. But you never expect them to end like this. And you don’t always have the answers why. That’s what I hate the most. Sometimes you find yourself in your pre-medical school days, standing helplessly by, unable to do a thing. The shock leaves you at a loss for words.

Many people think physicians are without emotions. That they have to be in order to get by. Not me. Just as I celebrate those lives that are saved, I also grieve and mourn those that are lost. Sometimes I can’t help but take that grief home with me. Luckily I have an amazing wife who understands and is a great source of support. No matter how great a surgeon I become, or how many lives I save, there will always be a few which I won’t be able to save … and those are the ones I will never forget.

Michael A. Zadeh is a general surgeon and can be reached at Zadeh Surgical, Inc.

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  • http://secondbasedispatch.com Jackie Fox

    God bless you.

  • http://www.jamesloganmd.com James

    Good for you, doctor!

  • Creighton

    Wonderful! Thanks so much for this.

  • http://missingmythyroid.blogspot.com/ Jeannette

    I would take a doctor that I felt sincerely cared any day over one who didn’t seem to! To me, that is the cornerstone of a great healthcare professional. Luckily, I have a physician that genuinely cares and truly it makes a big difference.

    As a nurse, I was warned about the same thing. ‘Don’t get attached, forget about them when you go home’ and such. For some, that is not possible. Frankly, I don’t think you can be a good health care professional without caring.

    I worked many years as a community visiting nurse which was even more difficult. When caring for a patient for a long period of time, I found it impossible to walk away without a care in the world after I had spent so much time with them. I have attended every funeral for the patients’ that I cared for long-term. Numerous times, families have expressed that they knew how much I cared and told me just how much they appreciated it. People can tell who truly cares.

    If a doctor feels that they must separate themselves emotionally for their own well-being then they must do what is right for them. I however know that I can not separate the two and find that I give the best care when I don’t try to remain emotionally distant.

  • http://www.healthybalancedlife.com Ann Becker-Schutte

    I think that every time we are genuine and present, we give better care! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.transparenthealth.wordpress.com Tracy Granzyk Wetzel

    Thank you so much for staying emotionally present for your patients, and for sharing your willingness to do so. I attended an amazing Patient Safety Educational Roundtable a week ago with thought leaders on patient safety from around the globe. All who came to Telluride, CO for this intimate meeting are focused on making patient-centered care the norm. Cliff Hughes, CEO at New South Wales, Australia Clinical Excellence Commission and a cardiac surgeon gave one of the lectures, during which he shared a story about staying with a patient of his through the night, during this man’s final hours. Cliff then asked the group of student scholars and faculty in attendance at Telluride “Is it unusual for you to cry?” A synopsis of Cliff’s story can be found here: (http://transparenthealth.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/will-you-stay-with-me/) but I wanted to share that you are not alone in your desire to connect with patients on a personal level, as well as professional. Patient-centered care will thrive when more caregivers venture into this space with patients. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • http://zadehsurgical.wordpress.com Michael Zadeh, MD

      Thank you for your kind comments. And thank you Tracy for sharing that moving story!

  • Kevin

    This is tough, because your feelings towards your patients shouldn’t affect your commitment and competence regarding any particular patient’s care. If it does, then how lucky for the patients you happen to cherish, while not so lucky for those who you detest.

    Any doctor’s patient panel, like society at large, will be comprised of those who are infinitely likeable, as well as those who few can stand. Some patients are just awful human beings, and that’s when it’s necessary to…well…act as if you personally care, when in fact you don’t.

    Every patient deserves the same level of competent and compassionate care. Since you can’t honestly muster compassion for everyone equally, then perhaps true compassion isn’t what we should be trying to dole out (since very few of us could disseminate compassion equally to ALL patients). What we CAN provide equally is respect, politeness, and of course competent and thorough medical care. That can be realistically doled out in equal measure, so that’s what we should strive for. Equal (expression of) compassion towards all, unless one is a suburb actor, is a distracting pipe dream.

  • http://expatdoctormom.com/ ExpatDoctorMom

    Thank you for a well written post! I couldn’t agree with you more. My job would not be so meaningful or fulfilling if there was this emotional side of medicine.

    I liked your post so much I referenced it in a post I published today: http://expatdoctormom.com/2011/07/11/doctor-is-in/
    Enjoy!

    Warm Regards,
    Rajka Milanovic Galbraith, M.D.

  • http://expatdoctormom.com/ ExpatDoctorMom

    Oops that was to read: if there was NOT this emotional side of medicine!

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