A physician suicide: covered up with a tarp and silence

Another young doctor recently jumped to her death in New York City. She landed at the entrance of the building where she lived.

Within less than an hour, I received the following emails about her. All published with permission.

Hello Pamela, I am not a doctor, but a mother of 3 and a wife of a resident physician. Tonight I watched AGAIN the police taking the body of another female doctor — lifeless — into a body bag. Two doctors died from jumping off our 33-story building in 2 years, and no one seems to care. The hospital and everyone are so silent. They cover it up. No one talks about. Someone dies, and everyone puts their heads down and ignores it and are told by the hospital to keep quiet — especially to reporters.

Thank you so much for your blog, public speaking, and advocacy. Since I’m not a doctor, there’s only so much I can understand about what my husband is going through. Discovering your blog has helped me know how to help my husband in so many ways. I worry so much about him. When we’ve tried to seek mental health care, we’ve had to be top secret about it. It’s insane. I’m tired of seeing dead bodies out my window. I’m tired of being on the sidelines. I’m feeling so angry and upset. I feel so powerless. What actions can I take to make sure I never see something like this happen again? Words can never describe how it feels to see a dead body outside your window. A beautiful lifeless body of a beautiful doctor.

This is what I saw when I came home tonight — a dead doctor lying under that tarp — lifeless in the freezing cold. What I am supposed to tell my daughter when she asks, “Mommy what’s that?”

Email #2:

I’m a physician. I have a career ahead of me, which I’m too scared to speak out against. I came home again to another suicide. Another doctor dead from Mt. Sinai in NY. I think NY is a horrible place to work. Conditions are deplorable for doctors, and you should investigate. Both suicides were horrible — jumped from our high rise. I’m convinced it’s the exhaustion, the demands to perform at 100% 24/7 to meet ridiculous administrative and FINANCIAL demands. We need to change healthcare. In NY doctors are blamed for everything the nurses, techs, janitors, staff don’t do. We have to do every job AND document and be nice 100% of the time. Everyone is protected by unions — except doctors. We’re criticized and destroyed with unbelievable debt. I don’t know why anyone would willingly go into this field. I love what I do, but I have grown to hate this system. I have lived in a culture of shame for too long. Would you please expose these Manhattan hospitals? They lack compassion. They are all obsessed with finances, prestige, and scores. This suicide today was horrific. I came into my building — a crime scene. Don’t let another doctor’s life go unspoken for. They will likely say she was troubled, but why was she troubled!?? Because she wasn’t efficient enough? Sad and overworked? Our hospital will make it about her. Like the girl that died last year, she was too sad.

Then I got an email that truly shocked me.

I do not have permission to publish this one so I won’t. I will say that it came from a man who I deeply admire, a man who is a health system executive in NYC. He wrote me in distress about the loss of this young doctor. He explained that hospitals investigate why things go wrong in patient care and lessons learned are shared to improve processes and prevent future deaths. When a doctor dies by suicide, how are we to learn from this tragedy if we don’t study what went wrong? Police don’t investigate suicides. Investigation is left to grieving family and friends. Don’t we have an obligation as a society and as medical professionals to understand why these suicides occur? He concludes, “If this were a patient, we’d be all over it and so would the regulators.”

A few hours before this flurry of emails, I was on the phone with a doctor who reported that her own family physician shot herself in her clinic. The doctor who called me disclosed the she had never been suicidal herself — except once, during residency for about 15 minutes. In an impulsive move, she went up to the roof of her 5-story hospital. Standing on the ledge, she recalled a lecture in which she was instructed that to assure death one must jump from at least six stories. So she paused. Then turned around and went back to work.

Now to answer the questions posed to me by the doctor’s wife, the physician, and the hospital executive. First, I believe we all have a common goal — to end these suicides.

To the wife of the resident physician who asks, “What actions can I take to make sure I never see something like this happen again?” I say talk about these suicides. Secrets will not save us. Organize a support group for physicians and their spouses. Don’t wait for another fallen physician. Channel your passion into action. Reach out to others in your building in a way that inspires and fuels you.

To the doctor who asks, “Would you please expose these Manhattan hospitals?” I say that as doctors we must all speak up about injustice, human rights violations in medical education, and deplorable working conditions in our first-world hospitals. It’s not just Manhattan hospitals. Doctors and medical students are dying by suicide throughout the United States and the world. This is a global epidemic.

To the executive who asks, “Don’t we have an obligation as a society and as medical professionals to understand why these suicides occur?” I say yes. I hold our medical system to the highest standard when it comes to protecting human life — and that includes the lives of our doctors. As a society, we must understand that this is a public health crisis. More than one million Americans lose their doctors to suicide each year. We can no longer cover up these deaths with tarps and silence. We can no longer walk away from the very people who have dedicated their lives to serving others. It’s just wrong.

“How are we to learn from this tragedy if we don’t investigate?” Without an investigation, history will repeat itself. More doctors will plunge to their deaths from hospitals and resident housing complexes in NYC. If we don’t investigate this death, we are each complicit in the loss of future physicians to suicide. Now is the time for fearless leadership, for the heroes among us to reveal themselves and take a stand for our doctors — for the men and women who walk into our hospitals everyday to so selflessly serve others.

Addendum: Doctors were working in the hospital right next to this building and could see there was a woman preparing to jump. They witnessed her fall. They knew she could be one of their friends (since the building houses primarily doctors). Yet these doctors had to continue to care for patients amid their tears and screams at the window. Many have flashbacks to colleagues that jumped from same building in previous years. “It is always the same thing,” says one resident. The hospital sends the usual ‘we’ve had a tragic death’ email. They tell us to meditate, sleep, and hydrate.” Then it happens again.

Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Physician Suicide Letters — Answered and Pet Goats and Pap Smears. Watch her TEDx talk, How to Get Naked with Your Doctor. She hosts the physician retreat, Live Your Dream, to help her colleagues heal from grief and reclaim their lives and careers.

Image credit: Pamela Wible

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