The Doctor as a Patient
I loved growing up with a doctor in the house. It always gave me a sense of security, like if anything went wrong, he’d know what to do. My father was, and still is, an amazing man. He always put on a strong face and was there for my family when we needed him. He was our foundation, and he never let on if anything was troubling or not well within himself.
During high school he suffered a heart attack which embolized and lead to a minor stroke. I count my blessings every day that somehow, despite being temporarily paralyzed on the left side of his body, he made a full recovery.
My father has had a plethora of other health issues which, in my opinion, can largely be attributed to living an unhealthy lifestyle; smoking cigarettes, poor diet, lack of exercise, high stress levels and excessive alcohol consumption.
I grew up thinking that new wine bottles around the house every night and frequently rotating fifths of vodka in the freezer, were a normal thing. Later on, at some point during college, my father was pulled over and charged with a DUI—he almost lost his license to practice medicine. We wondered if stress was perhaps the precipitating factor in all of this.
I’ve never seen someone give as much of themselves to their career, family, and friends, as my father did. That level of selflessness, however, can take a toll on your own wellbeing. When someone’s stress level reaches a high enough level, they often turn to unhealthy habits in order to cope.
I think it’s pretty well known, and perhaps even expected, that being a doctor is stressful at times. Is it also rewarding? Absolutely. But it is extremely stressful.
Doctors face long hours, high stakes, and major consequences if they perform poorly.
Unfortunately, this level of continual stress can also lead to other psychological issues, such as suicide, depression and, as previously mentioned, substance abuse.
But what are we doing as a society to help doctors through this?
As mentioned in a Current Psychiatry article, during a review of 14 studies involving suicide in the general population compared to physicians, it was found that male physicians have a suicide rate between 1.1 and 3.4 times that of the normal population and women between 2.5 and 5.7 (Bright & Krahn, 2011).
My father has been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make changes in his life and, for the most part, he has done so. He began going to Alcoholics Anonymous, quit smoking, and attempts to exercise more frequently (albeit less than I’d like him to). However, while I am proud of his efforts, it has always amazed me that such a remarkable healer and established doctor could fail to take care of his own body, mind, and spirt. Unfortunately, I know that he’s not alone. In fact, a close doctor friend of my father’s, who had attended the same residency as him, came knocking at his door one day with a set of his own problems.
His friend had gotten himself into a hole with narcotics after his wife passed away from cancer. He sank into a deep depression over this tragic loss, and that depression was only compounded by the feeling that he no longer had the drive to help others as a doctor anymore. It started as a legitimate pain issue, and quickly began to spin out of control, as he was also a heavy drinker.
As a doctor, it’s not too hard to get your hands on medicine, which can in turn be abused, and especially dangerous if you lack self-control and discipline.
This is often the case after a major life tragedy.
My dad’s friend knew he needed help. He didn’t want to see his life slip away any further.
So my father helped him check into a rehabilitation facility.
When I compare my father to myself, I see many similarities. On one hand this terrifies me.
I’ve seen first-hand what has happened to him.
On the other hand, I’m grateful that I have the perspective that his path is not the same one I want to lead. There are many aspects of his life that I do want to replicate: his success and happiness as a healer; and his ability to truly help others in a compassionate and selfless way; they’ve all been major inspirations for me as I begin my own path as a physician. However, I see within myself the same tendency to give, give, give… without remembering to take care of myself.
I have even seen the same tendency to cover my pain or stress with alcohol instead of meditation or exercise.
But it’s this perspective and self-reflection which helps me overcome these issues in a healthier manner and, perhaps more importantly, helps me to spread this perspective to other student doctors, residents, physicians (and many more in the healthcare field and beyond) to do the same for themselves.
As students, we are educated throughout medical school not only on countless different diseases, anomalies, and defects, but also how to live a healthy lifestyle in order to avoid such fates whenever possible.
But how many of us actually follow this way of living?
How many doctors have you gone to that try to coach you about how to stay healthy, when it’s unfortunately obvious they’re not in the best shape themselves?
What kind of trust does this bestow upon you as the patient?
It’s been said that doctors make the worst patients of all.
We as student doctors are training to become compassionate, knowledgeable, and remarkable healers. But I truly believe that one cannot heal another at their highest potential without making sure they are taking care of themselves as well. So whether you are in the medical field yourself, or on the outside of it receiving services, remember: it’s okay and encouraged for doctors and student doctors to seek help for themselves when needed.
And not just for physical issues, but spiritual and psychological ones as well. And yes, this means taking the time to stop, breathe, and have some oysters every now and again!
As medical professionals, it is often too easy to dismiss our issues as minor, or to blow them off because we assume our issue is not very serious in comparison to everything else we’ve encountered. Often we see our own issues as far less important than those that trouble our patients. But let’s make sure to remember that it’s okay to take care of ourselves. In fact, it’s critical!
Without doing so, we are not only doing a disservice to ourselves, but to our patients, our friends and our families as well. We have resources throughout our school, such as counseling or even the Peer Hotline flyers seen around campus. If you’re a therapist, it’s okay to go see a therapist! If you’re a cardiologist, it’s okay to see another cardiologist!
We must seek out each other for help, rather than being too proud or ashamed. As doctors, patients or both, we should never be afraid to seek the help that we need to be at our best.
By taking the time to take care for our minds, bodies and spirits, we can continue to support each other; and we can ensure that we are there for one another as a family, as a community and as a whole.
PNWU Note: If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol use disorder, we encourage you to take action. Take advantage of our on-campus counseling services or reach out to a support group. You can make a difference.
Bright R, Krahn L. (2011, April). Depression and suicide among physicians. Retrieved from http://www.mdedge.com/currentpsychiatry/article/64274/depression/depression-and-suicide-among-physicians.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences