Mourning a Profession

This past week, an unimaginable tragedy fell upon a family. A wife lost her husband. (Nearly) four children lost their father. A mother and father lost a son.

Upon a circle of friends. A group of buddies lost their companion. A band lost their guitarist. A neighborhood lost the guy next door. A congregation lost their fellow worshiper.

Upon a highly skilled cardiac team. These heart surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, perfusionists, nurses, technicians, and many more team members lost both a colleague and a friend.

Upon a hospital. These employees across roles and specialties lost a visionary among them, slain in their own halls.

Upon current and future patients. These vulnerable humans lost someone who just might have saved their lives.

Upon a profession…

I did not personally know Dr. Michael J. Davidson, a cardiac surgeon from Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston who was shot dead by the son of a deceased patient, but of course the degrees of separation are few in our educational backgrounds and our chosen profession. Still, I am arguably low on this list of people mourning, grappling with the soul sucking grief of an utterly inexplicable loss of life. But I am feeling it nonetheless. I sobbed listening to the excerpts of the funeral on NPR yesterday. Sat in my car and sobbed after a long day at the hospital.

As a surgeon, I am prepared for a certain amount of risk in my profession. There are communicable diseases. I always double glove, never making judgment on a patient’s risk of Hepatitis or HIV. I am tested for TB annually. I take countless precautions everyday to protect myself (and my patients) from the spread of infectious disease. There are ergonomic risks. I woke up everyday for ten years with back pain. Luckily I was able to fix many of my issues with pilates but many a colleague has required surgery after years of contortion about the OR table. There are psychiatric risks. Rates of burnout are high in my profession. Burnt out surgeons have high rates of clinical depression, substance abuse, and suicide. One study showed the the highest rates of suicide were among young female trauma surgeons with children. That was a sobering statistic.

When I get asked by aspiring physicians, and particularly by medical students considering surgery, why I do what I do, my truly heartfelt answer has always been “Because I get to save lives and to experience the bittersweet joy of a family saying ‘thank you for trying’ even when a life is lost.”

I have lost many a patient. And I have never, not once, before this week, felt unsafe after losing a patient. Not once.

I am on call today. I have already had a patient die despite my best efforts.

And so I mourn. And I sob. For all those people on the list above me who knew Dr. Michael J. Davidson and are experiencing unimaginable grief. And I also mourn for the loss security of my profession, a profession I chose to help others in their darkest moments. I am left in one of the darkest moments of my career.

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15 thoughts on “Mourning a Profession

  1. I am a hospitalist, not a surgeon, but also take care of patients with many comorbidities and am not always able to ensure a good outcome. Dr. Davidson’s murder was a terrifying and heartbreaking event. Thank you for capturing what I think many of us are feeling.

  2. It’s awful! I remember when we started doing code silver at out hospital which is a shooter alert and how almost silly I thought it was, but now sadly those code drills can become a reality! No profession is safe anymore.

  3. Thank you for posting what I could only imagine that other surgeons feel. I am a medical student at Tufts who is considering surgery. Dr. Davidson’s death has proved especially jarring. Your concerns are valid and you are not alone.

  4. I feel so similar. Im also a surgeon. I have felt afraid of a patient before and recently one of my partners in my office was physically threatened by a patient. Our office is now on “high alert”, whatever that means. The whole thing can be so scary. We give so much of ourselves and cannot trust that the people we care for understand that risk we take, or even can give us respect back. I am also feeling so sad for Dr Davidson’s family, and it really hits close to home… Sometimes I’m not sure if this is really all worth it.

  5. So well-put. Thousands of miles away we in South Africa mourn too. Of course, our profession has long not been safe, but every time something happens to a colleague we are shocked anew. In my country, doctors are often attacked (we lost a young doctor from our campus at the hands of a patient just three years ago), and just last year an intern was raped while on duty. But there’s no getting used to it, and no numbing the pain.

    All there is, is a lot of doctors that either leave the profession or leave the country.
    It breaks me.

    Thanks for your beautiful writing.

    • raped while on duty? by a patient? terrible!
      i’m sorry doctors in South Africa face higher rates of patient attacks.
      doctors in China also, i heard–frequently held responsible for the loss of patients, with frequent attacks/deaths.
      i’m glad that in the states doctors are regarded as people who try to help others, even if we can’t always succeed, and are not usually held responsible for death

  6. As an ob/gyn, our profession has experienced this type of casualty more than once. Although I have never felt threatened, I always wonder what a male partner might do if he disagreed with his partners decision to end a pregnancy after seeing me in the office.

  7. Beautifully stated but too paranoid- welcome to the perils of modern information dissemination. We have the ability to help people and cannot let a despondent individual alter our lives.

    You must choose how much insulation to wear in this world, I choose to go relatively bare and have grown deeply by the interaction with grateful patients and their families. I also suffer the scorn and despair of my failures. By involving the patient and family, and emphasizing that WE will work to get them better, they understand the collaborative nature of health care. They know that I am trying and will not abandon them. Still. I have been lucky. We are taking risks in medicine but can only hope that these horrible events remain tragic isolated incidents.

  8. I am neither in the medical profession nor (at the moment) in need of one of your colleagues, but I am grateful to you and others in that calling for helping the rest of us, despite risks to your own health. And never, not even in the depths of grief when a doctor was unable to save the life of one I loved, have I ever blamed the doctor or assistant when my loved one died. No, not even for a moment. Death is the other end of birth. None can escape. I choose to be grateful for the skill and efforts of those who try to help. Please – please – don’t give up on the rest of us. I stand with you in grief at this senseless tragedy.

  9. I am neither in the medical profession nor (at the moment) in need of one of your colleagues, but I am grateful to you and others in that calling for helping the rest of us, despite risks to your own health. And never, not even in the depths of grief when a doctor was unable to save the life of one I loved, have I ever blamed the doctor or assistant when my loved one died. No, not even for a moment. Death is the other end of birth. None can escape. I choose to be grateful for the skill and efforts of those who try to help. Please – please – don’t give up on the rest of us. I stand with you in grief at this senseless tragedy.

  10. Pingback: Today Nearly 300 of Us Will be Killed or Injured with a Gun | Hot Heels, Cool Kicks, & a Scalpel

  11. Pingback: Mourning a Profession – heenaSTAT

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