Since entering medical school, I wished to be a pediatrician. There was nothing more noble in my mind than curing sick children and babies. That dream changed suddenly one night on my surgery rotation. It was early evening, when a Code-22 rang out over the hospital overhead announcement system, the code for a child trauma patient in cardiac arrest. The surgical team raced to the trauma room from all corners of the hospital to find a 2-year-old child who was hit by a car. Apparently, he had been playing outdoors and ran out into the street . He was pulseless at the scene and at arrival to our hospital.
Despite the doctors and nurses working frantically for almost an hour, the child died. I cried when I saw the lifeless body of that little boy lying there on the exam table. And so did the entire trauma team. No one wanted to call the end to the code and pronounced the child dead. But, it was obvious to all, we were providing futile efforts. The task of informing the parents fell onto the chief surgical resident. We all watched as he went out to tell the father, a big football player type. And the father knew before a word was spoken. The sounds of that father’s wails haunted my dreams for many months, and I still hear them sometimes many years later. I knew then I could not handle seeing sick and dying kids every day. So, I decided on family practice where I still treat kids and babies, but the sickest ones I refer out.
“There have been many times over my career, where I was brought to tears and utterly heart broken by patients’ outcomes.”
There have been many times over my career, where I was brought to tears and utterly heart broken by patients’ outcomes. In fact, every time I inform a patient they have cancer, I need to sit alone in my office for a moment afterwards and often shed a few tears. While most cancers are treatable, and many patients do well, my news has just impacted their lives in a way that they can never change. Often, it begins a journey of pain and fear and not knowing whether they will survive. And for many, they struggle because often their family and friends start to treat them differently, like they are fragile.
I am not alone in this but I know many doctors who do the same. They cry when their patients die and rejoice in lives that are saved. However, many people do not see this but see our profession as cold and uncaring. At the same time, they expect us to be strong. The media gives the image of doctors driven by profit and not caring so much about the people that are their patients. But we do care and our hearts often weep for our patients. We do this privately so as not to show weakness in front of patients. They need to trust that we strive to do the best for them.
There is no other profession that witnesses so much human tragedy and suffering. We all learn our own defense mechanisms to survive and continue our work. People need to remember that doctors are human too. And we care and our grieving is much.