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.