Sunday, March 22, 2015

About that picture....

This photo has been moving around the internet quickly. Apparently it is an emergency room doctor in Southern California, taking a moment to grieve after losing a young patient. The public has really taken an interest in this, highlighting the difficult job of emergency room doctors, EMTs and nurses who deal with this kind of heartbreak everyday. (Maybe every other day. Maybe a few times per month. Just depends.)

A picture says a thousand words...and this one says it all.

I know what this doctor is feeling here because I have been there too. I remember those tearful moments in bathrooms, call rooms, empty ambulance bays, and at home. You don't get the time or luxury to properly grieve and talk about your feelings. Nobody talks about this. It is just assumed with the job. 

You don't have the time to deal with it because you must return to a busy ER, filled to capacity with needy patients, and a large staff you must lead until the end of your shift. 

You don't have the luxury to grieve because usually your thoughts after a death are, "I have so much paperwork to do." "I have to tell the family." "Did I make a mistake?" "Did I document my actions and reasoning well enough so I don't get sued?" 

And so over time, you have to find coping mechanisms to get you from day-to-day. There is a desensitization that occurs when you see horrific things, over and over and over again. You become cynical and flippant. You throw your empathy overboard because it is extra weight on a sinking ship that must keep floating until the end of your shift....and until the end of your career. Death becomes commonplace.

Are doctors provided any kind of tools to deal with death? Courses, seminars or counseling? Not really. It is an on the job adaptation. I've seen a lot of after hour adaptations as well. Alcohol, substance abuse, risky behavior, etc. I've read about the rates of physician suicide in the US (400 physicians per year) and realize that our coping mechanisms just aren't good enough. 

I am glad this doctor took a time-out. I re-posted the picture because the subject is anonymous and it is done at a respectful distance. I hope it gives people some perspective about what ER staff have to deal with. I also hope doctors see it and remember that grieving is normal and necessary.  


  1. I wanted to be a doctor when I was much younger. Now that I am quite older, I realize I could never have withstood all the pain/suffering in others, let alone treat it. God bless all of you who do.

  2. Very powerful photo and excellent article. Thank you for sharing with us what it is really like to be a doctor.