This past week, I got a late night e-mail regarding a meeting – of unknown reason – at the hospital the next morning. We residents arrived in the room, sure that each of us was going to be in trouble for, say, dressing unprofessionally, or that there had been a medical error on our part, or perhaps our program had not been accredited. As we looked at each other quizzically, one face that had just stepped into the room told it all: it was much, much, much worse.
A new friend and colleague had taken her own life. She was an enthusiastic, warm, and ambitious woman, someone who I knew would be a good friend by the end of the year. We do not fully appreciate the circumstances of her death, and the shock of learning of this event seems not to be lifting.
We are sad. She was a beautiful and bright light, and it is difficult to even fathom this loss. If I prayed, I would beg that she found peace, and that those who love her well will find their peace too. It is impossible to understand what she went through; those who know her intimately may beat themselves up for not detecting some subtle foreboding hint – but there may have been none. No warning. She was happy and healthy 2 days prior.
On that terrible day, there was an incident at her work. This involved a medical error that had serious implications but the consequence to the patient fortunately was not dire. In striving to explain the inexplicable, our consensus has been that the stress of making this mistake, and the self-imposed expectations of excellence at all times were factors in why she may have felt overwhelmed. No one stopped her as she walked out the door. Even if her demeanour did not reveal it, she was deeply distressed. Could someone stopping her to debrief have made the situation better? We don’t know. But it should have been done anyway.
It feels inappropriate to share these details, but I cannot but do so. I do not want to offend her memory. I must learn, YOU must learn. We ought not to continue on just as we always have. Something failed her. Sometimes people don’t reach out for help when they need it. Sometimes it is our job to reach out to them. I’ve made the mistake of not taking the time to “debrief” someone before, and I regret it.
Even though I had only just begun to know my colleague, I am shaken. She wasn’t so different from me; we were even the same age. I have colleagues with the same ambitions as she. What stress, what stress we are under. It is eternal, and so we think it normal. We justify it as ‘part of the job’ and downplay the extent to which we are swimming in it. We have great power, and great responsibility like Spiderman does, only it’s much much greater and much much scarier. And we could drown in it. New physicians ARE well supported, but that doesn’t mean the job itself becomes easier or less personally demanding. All the ‘physician wellness’ resources in the world don’t mean anything when you are too burdened to access them.
This makes me feel vulnerable. Not in the way a tragic accident suddenly takes a young life (and we all fear for our mortality), but in the way that a choice I’ve made (a career in Medicine) puts me at risk of crumbling. And I will make major mistakes. I will probably indirectly kill a patient through an unintended effect of medication, or through neglect of some important aspect of their care. I will be devastated, and I’m afraid of it. I am lucky that my family and friends are always willing to listen when I am upset. There is an open door and I find it easy to call even in tears. I hope that if I face something enormous, I have the strength to reach out for help, but if she – and she was strong – didn’t, I’m scared that I won’t either.
What an incredible person she was. I wish I had the chance to know her well, as her laugh and smile were infective, and her passion a big reason to look up to her.
We miss you dearly, and had a pint at the QW for you. I can see that you are so loved and will always be.
for P: Nous partageons votre peine en ce moment de deuil. Nos sincères condoleances, à vous et à votre famille.