Thank you social media. Thank you for sharing the image (posted with permission) of an ER physician crying after the loss of a young patient. And thank you, Reddit, for the thousands of comments that make this kind of “viral” content reach so much further than traditional medical journals. Just last month, as you’ve read here already, I was overwhelmed with response to my JAMA article about physicians and nurses as “second victims” during tragic events. Even though JAMA is of the top medical journals in the world, I’m certain far more people have been touched by this social media post.
The ER doc is quoted as having said: “I worked on him until he died and then I went outside and got down and cried and then I got up and went back inside and tried to feel better so I can make other people feel better.”
One commenter poetically rephrased, attempting to ‘capture something of the burden those who heal carry with them’: “And in the end, when the life went out of him and my hands could work no more, I left from that place into the night and wept – for myself, for life, for the tragedy of death’s coming. Then I rose, and walking back to the suffering-house, forgot again my own wounds for the sake of healing theirs.”
The response to this photo highlights even further that doctors are human, and yet are expected to have a superhuman ability to compartmentalize and bury normal human responses to extremely rare human experiences in large doses. (By this I mean, although death is not rare per se, seeing a person die in front of you, or touching a dying person and their body becomes cold and gray and stiff, or working feverishly to save a dying a person, only to lose that battle – these are experiences that most people do not have at all, and certainly do not suffer on a regular basis.)
Here’s one comment in particular that is food for thought for all of us, whether as patients, family members, or healthcare professionals:
“The part most people fail to realize, is that this man now has to compose himself, walk into another person’s room, and introduce himself with a smile and handshake to the next person. Sometimes healthcare workers walk in to see someone new and before even introducing themselves, out comes; ‘We’ve been sitting here for 45 minutes and…’ or ‘That guy next door has been moaning forever and nobody is helping him.’ You literally had to direct yourself 100% at someone grappling with death, and the rest of the show goes on around you.
There’s times where you run, and rush, and hurry, and skip eating, and go 12 hours without urinating, and you’d give your firstborn for a cup of water, and through it all, you lose, you get complained to, and you get zero sympathy from your coworkers or management. I’ve been covered in phlegm, urine, feces, blood, infectious drainage, sweat, and tears. I’ve had to go from ensuring a person continues to breathe, to a room full of angry people because grandma wanted a Tylenol and the call light has been on for 10 minutes, and we’re going to another hospital, and we want another doctor, and this place is getting a call to the administration, and I’m going to call a lawyer, and I’m calling channel 6 news, and we know so-and-so and he’s going to hear about this.
Healthcare is a life of fighting, defending yourself, sacrificing yourself, working weekends, missing holidays, and sometimes things like losing a patient makes you want to throw up your hands and say ‘f*ck it, I’m out.’ But you can’t. You do it because you love it. You do this thankless and unappreciated job because you want to. I can’t believe I’m in 6-figure debt and gave up the nights and weekends of my 20s so I could voluntarily do it. But I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
As I’ve written before, there are many reasons that healthcare professionals should be involved in social media and have an active online professional presence. This conversation is just one example of many. So thank you, social media, for bringing a magnitude of attention never seen before to the important issue of physicians as second victims. There are 4300 raw and unfiltered comments on the Reddit post above as of this writing – I highly encourage you to read them all.