December 2012, three days before Christmas. It started as an ordinary day, but soon it would become the turning point of my career. As I entered my office, I noticed a different energy in the room. The receptionist looked at me and said, “Doc, one of your patients died last night.” As a psychiatrist, I am not used to the feelings generated when someone you cared for, passes in the prime of their life. I had just seen him the week before. I rush to look at my last progress note that read: “Even though the patient is deeply grieving the loss of his wife, he firmly denies suicidal thoughts and finds strength in taking care of his two little children.” The memory of two little ones that I had met only through photos rushed through my mind.
I would like to believe that experiencing death makes me a better a physician. It makes more careful, more thorough and more caring. I have seen my late patient’s face many times in other people, and I want to believe that he has helped me prevent other deaths. I truly think that experiencing death has made me a better physician. Has it also made me a better person? That is debatable.
Every December, I think about him. Without even noticing, I take a few moments away from my family to think, to grieve and to plead with God that his family was able to find some peace.
So how about you? Where did your deaths go? Are they in that corner where the forgotten memories are? Have you stuffed them deep enough inside your soul in order to be able to do your work … in order to be able to see the next patient? What happens to that energy? What happens to the loss? What happens to those scars?
We are great at helping others. We humble our lives and take away the time to care for others, and we do it while numbing parts of ourselves in the process. And then we look at the newspaper and see our colleagues, our own people taking their lives, and we ask ourselves how did it happen. Why couldn’t they seek help? We vow to be more careful from now on. We vow to talk to others and to take that time to process our own deaths. And then, we forget.
How are we going to seek professional help? How are we going to admit that we are only human and that as humans we suffer from the same disorders than everybody else? And if I seek help, what would that mean to our career, our license, our hospital privileges? Couldn’t that be career breaking?
And you fear that if you seek help what would that mean? Would someone like me, a psychiatrist, look down on you? Will I judge you? Will I look at you different if we are in the same social circles? And to be completely honest, I do. I actually look up to you. I look up to you because I know how difficult it must have been for you to take that step. I see your courage, your strength and your confidence. And I admire you. I admire that you had the insight enough to seek help. I admire that you decided to remember, to process, to grieve, to live.
And as time passes, I see you. I see you become a better human because of those deaths.
Karla A. Viera is a psychiatrist.
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