Doctors treat people in all types of situations. Life or death. Sometimes both. Babies die, children die, and teenagers die. Women die. Men die. Sometimes you even have the misfortune of delivering a stillborn. Everyone experiences death, but for doctors, it’s part of our daily norm. Day after day, for decades throughout their career, we have to experience death and the pain of others. Beyond being knowledgeable and competent in our chosen field of medicine, doctors are expected to be empathetic, patient, compassionate, and confident in the face of mayhem.
Dealing with this amount of pain and suffering is literally heartbreaking, and most doctors (surprise!) have a heart, so we suffer too. Even if we don’t show it, we feel pain and sadness – we do not show it, though, because that would seem unprofessional, heaven forbid your doctor shows any emotion, right?
I’m going to call BS right now.
You cannot treat people with humanity and warmth and not be human. You cannot be human and not feel pain or sadness. Unfortunately, believe it or not, doctors get zero training on how to deal with these emotions and these painful situations in med school.
We are taught how to separate ourselves from our emotions so we can pronounce someone dead, inform the family and then move on to our next patient. Unfortunately, whether we admit it or not, these emotions just pile up over time, and eventually, we have a metaphorical graveyard of these memories buried inside of us.
We are not trained to grieve our dying patients, our losses, or our failures to save or improve a life. We are not trained on how to help a grieving family once their loved one finally passes. So what do we do, we do our job, and then when we are alone in our office, alone in the stairwell, alone in our car, or at home, we cry. At least the healthy ones cry.
The other ones deny any impact on their emotional being by disconnecting from their humanity to protect themselves from the pain. They become either zombies or physically or mentally sick. Unprocessed grief causes disease. We know that. Some use alcohol, some use drugs (illegal or prescribed), and some use other addictive coping mechanisms like obsessive jogging or cycling, for example, to cope.
Some doctors even commit suicide when it becomes too much, and they don’t know how to deal with their grief and are scared or don’t know how to ask for help.
It is OK to show your emotions as a doctor, especially empathy and compassion. That is actually professional and in what patients and their families want and need.
A compassionate doctor who can empathize with what they are going through emotionally and not just try and help them physically.
One day, when I was a resident, a resident colleague broke down in front of me in the hallway of a hospital. She was burned out and sad. She was exhausted. I felt embarrassed and did not know what to do or say to comfort her. So rather than tell her that, I kept the interaction short.
Looking back, I deeply regret not helping this resident during her time of need. I, too, was a resident and know exactly how she felt. I should have just told her it was OK, and I was there to listen to whatever she needed to vent. I just did not know at the time. I was trained to save a dying patient, but I was not trained to help my colleagues when they break down in the hallway. I know she is fine now, but I wish I could go back in time. I am sorry.
Doctors cry because we are humans. And it is OK. It is actually better that way.
Don’t think crying for a patient is unprofessional or that you will seem less competent or professional. It is human. A doctor is simply a human trying to help another human.
Jean Paul Brutus is a hand surgeon.
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