A love letter to doctors, from the sidelines of the COVID-19 pandemic

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After ten years as a hospitalist, I stopped practicing clinical medicine to focus my energy on helping doctors and other health care professionals reconnect with their professional (and personal) lives in a more meaningful way. I primarily do that through meditation, a stress-reduction technique called tapping (also called EFT), and coaching.

Since the pandemic ramped up in March, I’ve been donating my services to work with docs on COVID-related stress, and it has been eye-opening on so many levels. Here’s what I’ve learned from the docs I’ve worked with:

1. Doctors have an incredible ability to lift each other up. All over social media, and in my own personal network of doctor friends, I’m seeing and hearing how other docs are rising to the occasion and functioning at their best during this crazy time.

2. Doctors are as tough as nails. It can be our greatest strength and our biggest downfall. But in times like these, I’m awed by the ability of docs – not just those on the front lines — to adapt their practices to fit the need of this time (telehealth), to change their clinical responsibilities to help the common goal of fighting COVID and to go to extreme measures to keep their families safe while they expose themselves, day-in and day-out, to this virus.

3. Doctors work together. I’ve seen more wellness collectives (I’m honored to be a part of the Mindful Healthcare Collective, but there are more!) and physician Facebook groups spring up than I could’ve dreamed of. Doctors are helping other doctors to support each other emotionally and to stay on top of the most current information about coronavirus. There’s a sense of camaraderie and collaboration that is absolutely inspiring.

4. Doctors get a really bad rap, and even though it saddens me to see it, they have a right to be angry about it. Between the costs (emotional and financial) of medical training, the expectation to know everything (despite not being taught everything), the ever-present risk of lawsuits, and the increasing sense of being “another cog in the health care wheel,” doctors already have a lot on their plate, emotionally.

And now, doctors are on the front lines, making impossible life or death decisions, wearing bandanas and scarves to protect themselves, and doing the best they can to MacGyver their way through this pandemic. They’re doing this with nurses, PAs, NPs, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, and all the other brave and vital staff such as food service and environmental services that keep hospitals running.

Yet, more than any other health care professionals, doctors are being trashed in the media, blamed as a whole for the hoarding behaviors of the few, and not being compensated for their extra time and risk. Even worse, doctors are being fired for speaking up against a  system that isn’t protecting them. Doctors aren’t unionized, and there’s no governing body to protect them at times like this.

5. Doctors are human. They feel everything that everyone else feels, but they are under immense pressure (internal and external) to keep it all in and pretend everything is OK. In addition to feeling brave, proud, and energized, there are other emotions they’re afraid to admit, even to themselves.

Many are riddled with guilt for not wanting to step up because of the shocking lack of personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe, or for not being frontlines enough to make a difference. They can feel resentful that this pandemic is yet another time they have to put their personal preferences aside for their jobs. They are anxious and afraid — of getting sick, of putting their families at risk, and for the physical and financial wellbeing of their staff. They’re angry that the government, and their hospital systems, have largely failed them and their patients. They’re lonely and isolated from their friends and families so that they don’t put anyone at additional risk.

But, being doctors, they hold it in. No one fights for them, but they continue to fight for their patients. They show up for work, they take care of patients, they put their lives at risk, and some of them even die doing this work.

Each day of this pandemic, I’m growing more and more in awe of my fellow docs—all of them, no matter their specialty. And I fear the short and long term consequences on their emotional health, and on their ability to do their jobs. Every day is traumatic or has the potential to be.

I’m here, as are countless others, day after day, week after week, to support them. But will they ask for help? Will they suffer in silence? Will they even allow themselves to take in the magnitude of the toll that this pandemic has taken, once life returns to ‘normal’? And in a system which rewards stoicism and ‘strong work’ (and does not reward vulnerability or asking for help), I worry for our docs, and for all of our health care professionals.

None of us knows what comes next, but it is my hope that our system (and the docs themselves) recognizes and rewards the incredible contribution of these amazing humans. And every step of the way, my mental health and wellness colleagues and I will be there to support them. However we can.

Jill Wener is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at her self-titled site, Jill Wener, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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