There’s always so much to write about, and there’s never any time. I work too much; it’s become evident recently that I need to cut down. I have started noticing that things affect me much more than they ever did; there are days I hide my tears, and days I show my tears, when before the tears would have waited for the occasional (yes, occasional) shower. This is a function of my level of exhaustion; if I were to plot it out on a bar graph like the kind my daughter is learning to understand in third grade, the intersection between the extremes of “time at work” on the x-axis and “lack of me time” on the y-axis would be the way I feel right now. Burned out.
Burnout: a small word we use a lot recently, to describe a very complex situation. Physicians (and I can only speak for this category of person as I am one) are suffering. Many of us won’t mention it, won’t give it breath to solidify itself in our lives. If we say it, we make it real, when it’s often easier to just push it away and deny it’s existence. Burnout. There, I said it again. To be honest, I’m not always sure this is where I am; but I’d like to learn how to prevent getting there.
Physician wellbeing is another catchphrase, like “wellness”, that is getting a lot of air time these days in conversation and at conferences. This is something I can hang my hat on, that I want to be a part of. In my little corner of existence, I am going to step up and start working on improving my, and my colleagues’, wellbeing. How? Well, I have plenty of ideas. Whether I can bring them to fruition is a good question, but I’m ready to try.
How can you help? Can you help? Can anyone? I think so. Here’s an idea.
Next time you’re in the emergency department, or your family doctor’s office, or visiting a specialist in clinic, try to think about how hard those individuals are working for your benefit.
Put yourselves in our shoes, for a moment, and see through our eyes. See the way we have to hide our own emotions in order to help you get through yours. See how we stay late to take care of your children, while our own children miss us at home. See the glassy look in our eyes when we try not to cry as we tell your mom she will die within the year of a cancer we discovered by accident when we did a CT scan for kidney stones. Look at my hands clasped tight, white, before me as I break the news that your brother did not make it after I worked for hours to the best of my ability, to save his life.
Look at all of us, stretched far beyond what we ever thought we signed up for, in a system where more and more sick people come to our door but we can’t hire more physicians to help see all of you faster. When you have waited six hours and it’s 4 a.m., and I finally walk into the room with an exhausted look on my face and a droop in my shoulders, but I put on a smile and say “Hi, I’m Dr. A., how can I help you today” – please don’t crush me with your anger and your frustration. Please understand we do our best and work our hardest to navigate fear, exhaustion, panic, sorrow; that we search to balance these with moments of joy of a new pregnancy diagnosis, or a hard-fought save in the resuscitation room. We try so hard to give you good news, or break the bad news with empathy; to see you faster, more efficiently, without skimping on the care we give to each of you.
Please, look at me and see my heart, see my humanity, treat me as you would like me to treat you, with kindness. Just because I am a doctor, wearing scrubs and a stethoscope and a messy ponytail with pens sticking out from all pockets and phones ringing every few minutes, just because of this garb I put on when I come to work, don’t decide I am any less of a person than you. I feel what you feel. I hurt as you hurt. I bring your stories and your pain home, and I feel it over and over with you as you lie in the stretcher where I left you, and feel it yourself. We feel this together. You are not alone. But when I go home, I am alone; no one knows your stories, no one sees the tears you cried when I told you the awful things I had to tell you. Those moments we had together, that changed your life, don’t think they haven’t changed mine. They have. I am changed, by you, and you by me. And it hurts.
So please, be kind to your doctor. We need it. We need kindness and compassion. From you, from each other, from ourselves. Help us heal, the way we try to heal you.
Sara R. Ahronheim is an emergency physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com