I live in Eugene — a sweet little community with snow-capped mountains, farmers’ markets and the friendliest people around.
But a few weeks ago, one of our beloved pediatricians shot himself in the head in a public park. Earlier this year, one of our surgeons was found dead in his car from carbon monoxide poisoning.
And just before him, a urologist shot himself in the head in his backyard. Before him, a local anesthesiologist was found dead of an overdose in a closet and a family physician jumped in front of a train.
What does it mean when our healers take their own lives?
And why aren’t more people talking about physician suicide?
Maybe the real problem is that we can’t say the word suicide. Newspapers don’t like to print the word suicide, unless the family mentions it in the obituary.
In fact, when I do a Google search for the names of physicians who have committed suicide, I find no mention of the word “suicide.” When I Google “Oregon physician suicide,” I find links on physician-assisted suicide. And I guess this is the ultimate act of physician-assisted suicide — but not the kind anyone would approve of.
Doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession. In the United States, we lose a physician a day to suicide. That’s two to three entire medical school classes per year.
I dated two fellow medical students during my training. Both are dead. One, an internist in his early 40s, was found in a hotel room with pain pills. My anatomy class partner — a pediatric urologist in his early 30s — “died suddenly.” I’ve never found out how. Or why.
We deserve to know why our doctors are dying, why the mental health of our healers deteriorates during training, why our young medical students have a high risk for burnout, depression and suicide.
Since nobody likes to talk about suicide, I’ll start.
In the fall of 2004, I was suicidal. I didn’t have a gun or a stockpile of pills, but I could have easily acquired both.
Why was I suicidal? Situational depression. What was the situation? My beloved profession had been stolen from me. How? By bureaucrats and middlemen who had inserted themselves between me and my patients and sucked the joy right out of my career.
Fortunately, rather than kill myself or continue to hold myself and my patients hostage in a dysfunctional medical system, I held town hall meetings where I invited citizens to design their ideal clinic. I collected 100 pages of testimony, adopted 90 percent of feedback and opened our clinic one month later.
In 2005, the people in my sweet little community had created the first community-designed ideal clinic in America.
Now, reporters fly here from all over the country to study our clinic with such happy patients and an unusually joyful doctor. Doctors don’t need to be victims of a health care system gone awry. Hundreds of physicians have opened ideal clinics nationwide. And more and more doctors are choosing to live — and love medicine.
Maybe if my dead colleagues could have experienced more joy in their careers, they wouldn’t be dead. We must investigate why our healers are harming themselves.
But if all we are told is that another doctor “died suddenly,” then the conversation ends.