Healers Need Healing, Too

When flight attendants deliver safety instructions, they remind us of the need to put on our own oxygen masks first before we try to assist others.

As health-care professionals, our natural tendency is to focus on the well-being of others; that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We give our patients good advice regarding their physical and mental health, yet the environments we work in are not always conducive to our own well-being. The result can be burnout, which is associated with depression, which increases the risk for suicide. In fact, physicians have a higher suicide rate than the general population.

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Thin Red Line

“You’ll feel better after the surgery,” my psychiatrist said, “and the cancer is cut out.” I scoffed. He knew me too well to think it would be that easy to quell my escalating anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy has never been my thing, and there weren’t enough pills in my prescription bottles to make my fears fly out the window as neatly as that 6 mm tumor would be excised from my breast.

The surgery was easy, as was the recovery. The wound healed quickly. Just five weeks later, my scar is a smooth, scarlet sliver that looks more

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Embracing Vulnerability

Her voice trembled as she fumbled with the scrap of paper in her hands. What did I do wrong? Is this the right prescription? Am I going to die? The questions gushed from her all at once.

As a medical student on my first clinical rotation, I was still getting used to how to run these clinic visits. It seemed like no one was ever there for the reason originally listed, and somehow I always ended up with the long-winded patients that kept me in the room so long I was lucky if I made it to the

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Searching for Sparks

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the practice of medicine is not always the practice of wellness. How optimistically I applied to join this profession out of a sense that I intuitively took better care of myself than did many of my peers. I knew that happiness and health intertwined, though my naiveté about how to rescue one if the other faltered was sorely lacking. 

Ahh, youth. Unencumbered by the kind of financial and emotional obligations I would eventually crave, back then I could restore balance with a day trip to wine country, or a chance to ski instead of

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Mutual Wounding, Mutual Healing

One of the hardest parts of being a physician is dealing with the death of a patient. In the course of my career, I’ve learned that the physician-patient relationship can be an effective tool for healing, for the doctor as well as the patient’s family.

An example follows: My patient with advanced COPD died in association with emergency surgery. Despite appropriate care, his condition overwhelmed him. His wife, also my patient, was an assertive, take-charge individual. In addition to blaming herself, she angrily insisted that some error in care led to her husband’s death.

I realized that we had to

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Cardiac Ward

I cradle a fragile baby whose heart cannot support her growth. I have fed her, bathed her, changed her diaper, rocked her to sleep, and measured her meds in drips per second, all in the hope that she will gain enough weight to withstand surgery.

I take the baby to sit in the playroom because I know her eyes will sparkle to the sound of little voices. She coos as we sit among chattering toddlers with clanging IV poles.

Suddenly her eyes go dull, and she is limp in my arms. Blood erupts from her mouth with a guttural sound.

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Healing Beyond the Wound

My ICU room is quiet, except for the interruption of the sounds made by equipment attached to me. My most important visitor, my wife, has gone home for the evening. Thoughts of despair and brokenness begin to creep in. I contemplate what life after emergency, life-saving, open-heart surgery will be like for my wife, and will she recover from the trauma and fear she has endured.

As Editha, the nightshift ICU nurse, enters my room to take my blood sugar reading, I ask if I can have some morphine for the pain. With a smile, she responds by asking me

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A New Year’s Resolution: Make Every Breath Count

As the final hours of 2020 approach, I try to tie up the loose ends as I sign over our busy inpatient service to the next attending physician. As I do so, my mind begins reflecting on the first nine months of this pandemic.

The hardest part has not been the hassle of donning and doffing the PPE. Nor, figuring out how to optimize drug dosages to best treat patients with COVID. The hardest parts are these: finding inner quiet among the incessant overhead rapid response alerts; learning to treat the loneliness and despair visible in my patients’ eyes; and,

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Blessings

During a routine Thursday evening clinic, I knock on the exam room door, enter, and greet my patient. She is an elderly Puerto Rican woman with worsening Type 2 diabetes, a new bleeding sore on her face, and chronic back pain.

As I log onto the computer, my patient and her niece discuss how guapa I am, and I blush silently. The patient smiles, at ease, as her niece laughs wildly, such music to my ears.

As this visit concludes, we plan a telemedicine follow-up in three months. My sweet patient forgoes her pre-pandemic kisses and hugs, and instead says to

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Something Wagging This Way Comes

For five years I had the privilege and honor of visiting hospital patients as a pet therapy volunteer with my springer spaniel, Baker. During those years, when I also cared for elderly parents, the smiles of patients and clinical staff and gratitude for the pet therapy visits sustained me. I couldn’t stop my parents’ decline, but I could brighten a stranger’s day.

Pet therapy rounds required me to adapt to each patient’s situation and allow the visit to unfold. When we entered the room, the mood became lighter; solemn faces broke into smiles. Some patients wanted to quietly stroke Baker’s

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Cartwheels

When the shutdown came last March in Michigan, I could not attend my favorite (only) granddaughter’s wedding in Toronto, but she included me on FaceTime. I struggled with Zoom for City Council and Zoning meetings: many of us were fighting the building of a parking ramp in our neighborhood. From my window, I watched as crowds gathered at the Capitol, twice, to protest the shutdown, with kids, flags, blasting car horns and guns. My daughter in California threw a joyful 80th birthday party for me on Zoom, with family attending from four states and Canada. One day I was down,

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A Losing Game

As a child, I played a game called “Mother, May I.” Because I usually forgot to say the correct words—“Mother, may I?”–I spent most of the game retreating several steps instead of moving forward.

I often think of this childhood game as I try to heal—mentally, physically and emotionally—from almost eleven months of self-isolation in a world that has stolen my job, my theater and my social interactions from me. Yet, every time I feel as if I am healing—moving forward in acceptance and hope—I descend further into the darkness.

My children and friends tell me to stop watching the

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