“When my father was a young physician, around my age, he experienced a tragic event that changed the trajectory of his life. Many years later, he wrote about the experience. He told the story of a pregnant patient under his care who experienced an ‘anesthesia catastrophe’ during a cesarean delivery. He had been her family medicine physician and was present as first assistant for the procedure. The patient had a cardiac arrest that resulted in severe brain injury and, several days later, was removed from life support and died. Her infant survived but had severe neurological injury.
‘Everyone who’d been involved left the hospital,’ my father wrote. ‘You’re the family doctor,’ he recalled being told, ‘it’s best if you speak to them.’ He remembered breaking the news, alone, to the patient’s family. ‘I assumed my career was over,’ he said. My father described being in a kind of ’emotional shock’ after this. He reported feeling abandoned by his colleagues and targeted by the news media. Although a malpractice suit was filed, my father was not named in it. He wondered if this was because he was the only one who talked to the family.
In reflecting on this event, my father described the personal and professional cost as ‘incalculable.’ At the same time, he said he became a more conscientious physician because of it, sometimes catching mistakes by less attentive colleagues over the ensuing years. He hoped that his own reflections on the event would encourage discussion of medical errors more openly, including the emotional toll they can have on clinicians. He also described a profound sadness that he continued to feel decades after this loss. For him, it was ‘a sadness that doesn’t go away.’
Although I’ll never know for sure, I suspect this sadness played a role in my father’s premature death. In many ways, it has also played a substantial role in my life. While it may not have been the inheritance I hoped for, the sorrow and grief that flowed into my life through my father’s death has shaped me in important ways. During medical school, I grew interested in the field of palliative medicine, drawn by the opportunity to help patients through grief and loss and to be a steward of opioid medications. In palliative medicine, I have found kindred spirits and a feeling of being at home in my work. I have also found a community where stories of loss—stories like my own and my father’s—can be acknowledged, held with compassion, and allowed to move and to heal in their own time.
The labor and art of story telling has the power to transform our lives. In sharing and receiving stories, we connect more deeply to one another: We become more real, more fully human. We feel less alone. The labor of story telling is not necessarily easy, though. It requires honesty, vulnerability, and the courage to contact the wounded places within ourselves. Sadly, these are not things that most of us are taught to do as physicians. Instead, we learn early on in medical training that it is risky to be our authentic selves, to acknowledge our imperfections, and to share our struggles. I am convinced that this has contributed to the epidemic of burnout, depression, and suicide among physicians.”