It has been only two weeks since I realized the job I had was gone. As physicians, I think we have this idea of what our work will look like into the future. It is enshrined in pomp and circumstance from the start as we take an oath to “do no harm,” it’s encrusted with an unspoken culture of medicine that often asks us to give more than we thought possible. We build systems, evaluate quality metrics, and find ways to get through global pandemics all while trying to embrace change. I have even embraced entrepreneurship and reinvention. Two weeks ago, I found out how blindsided you can be with just one email.
You see, I am an anesthesiologist, and change has been ever-present since the start. During residency, I remember the inflow and outflow of physicians whose practices were bought up, transferred, expanded, or contracted, and the feeling that even my “stable job” as a physician was subject to the whims of private equity and the business of medicine. I vowed to myself that I would make myself irreplaceable and stay true to people and patients. And even with this, I was surprised by how affected I was by this change.
Medicine itself is such an experience in embracing change and uncertainty. I often am asked how long something will take, how do you know how much to give, and how much pain someone will have? When we are confronted with a big event, we crave certainty. We want someone to come alongside us and say, “this is the right move” and “everything is going to be ok.” I get it. And I, unfortunately, often joke that if I knew the future, I would have endless fame and fortune.
Here is what I re-learned two weeks ago: change and uncertainty are everywhere, and it is okay to grieve what was. I have had so many emotions the past few weeks, and the most prominent one is grief. Grief for the friends and colleagues that will move out of my professional life with whom I have had the privilege to go through this crazy life for a time. Grief for the loss of innocence for my younger partners who feel unstable and unsure. Grief for what will no longer be. This is a death.
These days, when I wake up and go to a job that now has an expiration date, I go through a rollercoaster of emotions. Much like watching a family go through processing the death of a loved one, I can see myself moving through all the emotions and luckily usually end up with another emotion: gratitude and love. It is hard not to feel it all in the end. And I think we often overlook the other underlying reason for grief. We overlook our love. Without love, our grief is less profound. And I realize my grief has been profound.
As I move to the next phase of my career, I want to focus on this: The gratitude I feel for colleagues that have reached out and offered support. The nurses who pick me up and help me through tough days. The surgeons and other physicians whose knowledge and heart remind me why I went into medicine. And the partners that shaped me into the physician and leader I am today. I am focusing on this because I am trying to accept that death comes to us all, even our jobs, even when it feels so hard. In my optimistic moments, I can remember that this change, this death, can bring new life. And I’m still going to miss this, and only now can I fully appreciate how great it is and fully grieve.
Here’s to our Phoenix journey as physicians, and here’s to new life.
Melissa Welker is an anesthesiologist.