"The Loss of One of Our Own, To Suicide" by Dr. Bob Henderson
July 26, 2016
She entered the board room quietly but not unnoticed. After surveying the room, she sat herself toward the far end of a long conference table away from the cluster of other participants. Although usually I am not observant of a woman’s dress, her stylish blue suit and matching high heel shoes caught my attention. Her appearance and demeanor was more formal than that of the other participants, making her stand out. My first thought was, “she is not a physician”. The meeting was convened and the woman was introduced by the CEO of a large medical institution. Her husband had been the CEO’s personal physician and friend for 17 years. With his voice breaking, forcing him to pause in making his remarks, the CEO hesitantly continued, clearing his throat again, pausing several times while concluding his introduction His physician, his friend, the woman’s husband had committed suicide, a victim of physician burnout. Those words startled everyone thereby freezing the group first in disbelief, and then secondly in a blanket of grief which quickly overshadowed us. The room was silent. The CEO reported that at first he experienced disbelief and then shock at the news of his friend’s death. How could this happen? How could this happen to an excellent physician who was well respected among his peers and in the community. Continuing, the CEO expressed a sense of regret that he never picked-up on his friend’s despair, never asked him how he was doing. Then his grief turned to firm resolution, that his friend, his physician had not died in vain. The CEO proclaimed, "this cannot be allowed to happen again in North Carolina!"
The woman gracefully rose to address the group, the North Carolina Consortium for Physician Resilience and Retention. Her voice was soft, muted, gentle, yet firm. She spoke with poise, but I perceived a deep sense of loss as she slowly but calmly recounted the tragedy surrounding her husband’s suicide. As she continued, I sensed my own throat begin to tighten. I cleared my throat. As tears spontaneously began to stream down my face from the corners of my eyes, I quickly wiped them away in embarrassment, hoping no one had noticed. A deep sense of emptiness and despair quickly overtook me. Those feelings were then overshadowed by a rush of anger. The thought flooded my mind, “how could we, the medical community, this man’s peers and friends, allow this to happen to one of our own, to one of us?” “How can we be so busy, so insensitive, so out of touch, that we missed the signs of one of our own in such pain, despair, hopelessness, driving him to take his own life?” “How?”
After the session concluded I had an opportunity to visit with the physician’s widow. From her comments three failures of the medical community came to light. The first was her husband’s pride preventing him from acknowledging his struggle and asking for help. Second was his reticence to reveal his struggle and pain to anyone for fear of negative repercussions from the state medical board, credentials committee of the hospital, and his peers. The third element was the physician’s wife’s inability to find help when she saw his condition deteriorate further and become desperate. I asked her if she worried about him harming himself. Her muted response, with eyes focused downward, was “yes”. “I looked everywhere for help, online, local and state medical society, and there was nothing! I felt so alone.”
So, why did she speak to our group? Her presence, her sharing her story took real courage. Out of the ashes of her tragedy, she has committed herself to prevent another physician suicide. With firmness and determination in her voice she now champions the cause to address physician burnout in her community and across North Carolina. For this reason, the woman has given me permission to share her story with you.
As Miriam and I drove back to Asheville later that day our countenance was somber as we reflected upon that physician’s widow and her testimony. Her story was riveting, an indictment against the medical community and its culture. That pride within the physician not to express vulnerability, doubt, and the “go it alone” mentality (the lone ranger syndrome) is a product of medical education and training. Credentialing and licensing institutions have not strongly fostered and promoted an environment of caring for the caregiver, so that physicians won’t be afraid of negative repercussions when they ask for and seek help during stress and burnout. The third indictment was, to me, the strongest of all, for it was aimed straight at me, at us, that physician’s peers. We can do better and we must do better, individually and corporately. That is exactly what the Physician Wellness program of WCMS began to address last year and continues to develop this year across our region. The widow’s testimony was an impetus to move ahead, more swiftly, with prevention of and the intervention for burnout. Already, WCMS has had two retreats on burnout, led by a nationally recognized authority. This fall Dr. Mark McNeill is presenting a two session seminar on burnout, the first his own story of burnout and recovery, and the second maneuvers and steps to make the EHR a useful tool to help prevent burnout, since the EHR is viewed nationally as a leading contributor to the problem.
Following the McNeill mini-series, WCMS will conduct ongoing professionally-led group discussions and presentations about topics that physicians and their spouses have identified as being important to addressing and preventing burnout. Those issues include relational health, mindfulness, workplace conflict, work-life balance, addiction to work, anxiety issues and more. Additional programming and referral services are being created and brought on board. In short, the statement: “I looked everywhere for help, online, local and state medical society, and there was nothing! I felt so alone” serves as WCMS relentless charge to serve as a safe, neutral, confidential welcoming place for all physicians, physician assistants and their families who need and seek help.
To advance this program requires financial funding. WCMS welcomes your donations to the physician wellness program to make it all happen, and it thanks you for your commitment to your medical community, peers and friends.
Ongoing dialogue, based on this presentation, is to follow. Stay tuned.
Bob Henderson, MD
Champion: Physician Wellness and Burnout Program
Western Carolina Medical Society