Real Medicine

Pouring my heart out: Doctors are not Superhumans

I saw this PostSecret this past Sunday. As with many secrets, this one elicited some strong emotions. Not only empathy, but anger. Anger not at the doctor who sent the secret, but at the medical community at large, and the lack of support for doctors.

A patient on my shift miscarried in the ER.

I cried in the bathroom for a half hour before I could talk to her.

I don’t want to be a doctor anymore.

If somebody loses someone – a foetus, a child, a parent, a friend, WHOEVER – they would be strongly encouraged to go for counselling and debriefing. If somebody witnessed a traumatic event, nobody would imagine denying them counselling. But for some reason doctors, who work in traumatic environments daily, are not afforded this opportunity.

Of course, nobody tells them outright You will not go for counsellingNope, it’s more subtle than that. It’s the mindset that doctors are strong. Doctors do not have mental illnesses (and PTSD is a “mental illness”). Health Care Practitioners had to be brilliant to get where they are, and therefore they must be superhuman.

It’s an attitude I see a lot from the older generation of health care practitioners, the  almost medieval mindset that mental illness equates to instability equates to not being able to be a good doctor. The classic slippery slope. Therefore if you have it, you hide it. Pretend it’s not there. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. And the irony is that this mindset is what makes so many doctors emotionally unstable because they do not seek help.

When I talk to people about my work in Neonatal or Paediatric wards, a lot of them have the tendency to say, “Oh, I just couldn’t do what you do, my heart would just break.” I am human too.. My heart also breaks for those little people. I just know that something must be done to help them, and if part of that involves sticking a needle in their tiny veins or getting a restraining order against an abusive parent, then it must be done.

I read once that the medical profession has some of the highest rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide. No wonder. I simply don’t see how compulsory debriefing – as for psychologists – is not part and parcel of the job. If a doctor had TB, he would take TB medication. And if the doctor had a needle prick incident and wanted to prevent HIV, he would take PEP. So why not prevent emotional scarring by looking after our doctors’ psyches?

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12 thoughts on “Pouring my heart out: Doctors are not Superhumans”

  1. I think we all need a third party to talk to at times. That is all a psychologist is. A neutral third party to get an objective perspective from. I do not see why people would not want to take advantage of that opportunity.

  2. This is a so true!
    I find it bizarre how people can point out the “how could you do this everyday,” but often people are shocked to find out that you weep for your patients and feel sad overall about some of these things, as if we don’t feel. And often times in the community, there are people who support one another, but even more often, we are in isolation or treated poorly if we react with such emotions.
    Things are getting better here with things like that, but they still have a long way to go.

    1. You’re right, there is a lot of hypocrisy and contradictory action in terms of physician mental health. And with such attitudes from the public I guess I can understand to some extent when doctors pretend to be okay. It would really be great if debriefing sessions became compulsory. It’s great that you say things are getting better – I hope my country will follow suit!

  3. I saw that card on PostSecret too. It also broke my heart. I have yet to do clinicals, but I’m worried about situations like that. Everyone tells me that you “learn to dissociate,” but to what extent is healthy?

    1. Exactly – I’ve written and thought about the “dissociation effect” a few times. I get very annoyed every time I’m told that the best doctors learn to surpass emotions. There is just no way that can be healthy. When I am sick and worried, or I’m worried about an ill family member, I want a doctor who cares enough that they would feel guilty if they did less than their best. And so I believe my patients deserve that too. I think people mistake learning how to deal with emotions for simply switching the emotions off.

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