What I’ve learned from saving physicians from suicide
PAMELA WIBLE, MD | PHYSICIAN | MAY 27, 2013
A psychiatrist in Seattle had picked out the bridge. At 3am he would swerve across his lane and plunge into the water. Everyone would assume he fell asleep.
A surgeon in Oregon was lying on the floor of her office with a scalpel. Nobody would find her until it was too late.
An internal medicine resident in Atlanta heard an anesthesiologist joking about the lethal dose of sodium thiopental. Alone in the call room, she would overdose that night.
While preparing to overdose, the internist was interrupted by an endocrinologist calling to check on her. Before grabbing her scalpel, the surgeon called several physicians pleading for help—I responded immediately. Two days before he was to drive off the bridge, the psychiatrist spotted my ad for a physician retreat. He called me begging to attend.
One week later, I’m hiking through the Oregon Cascades. The scent of cedar envelops me as I approach the lodge where I’m welcoming physicians who have arrived from all over the United States and Canada, all of us on a pilgrimage for answers.
Tonight we begin a retreat for doctors who yearn to love medicine again. Studies confirm most doctors are overworked, exhausted, or depressed. The tragedy: few seek help.
I ask the group, “How many physicians have lost a colleague to suicide?” All hands are raised. “How many have considered suicide?” Except for one woman, all hands remain up—including mine.
“Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession,” I explain. “In the United States we lose over 400 physicians per year to suicide. That’s the equivalent of an entire medical school. Even that’s an underestimate because many physician suicides are incorrectly identified as accidents.”
I tell them, “Both men I dated in med school are dead. Brilliant physicians. Loved by their families and patients. Both died young—by ‘accidental overdose.’ Really? How many physicians accidentally overdose?”
The room is quiet.
It’s easier to say accident than suicide. Doctors can say gonorrhea and carcinoma. Why not suicide? Maybe we can’t face our own wounds.
“I’m a family doc in Eugene, Oregon, where we’ve lost three physicians in eighteen months to suicide. I was suicidal once. Assembly-line medicine was killing me. Too many patients and not enough time sets us up for failure. Rather than kill myself, I invited my patients to help me design an ‘ideal clinic.’ It is possible to love medicine again.”
The Canadian doctor to my right wipes her eyes. “I’m feeling so discouraged. I want to give up and work at Starbucks. My head is exploding from banging it against the system.”
A bright-eyed, blonde woman reveals, “I just took a leave of absence from med school because it was ‘killing my soul.’ Three classmates attempted suicide.”
A newlywed couple join in. “I’m a nurse. My husband is an internist. He’s suffering, but I don’t know how to help him. Doctors don’t seek psychiatric care because mental illness is reportable to the medical board. He fears he’ll lose his license.” Her husband adds, “I was suicidal three months ago. On the edge. My wife and I are hoping to find answers here.”
Here, physicians, nurses, and medical students share their wounds and their wisdom—in community. We share new practice models, communication techniques, and strategies to care for ourselves—so we can care for our patients.
In four days, I witness more healing than in four years of med school. Once strangers, we’ve become family. Parting ways, the psychiatrist from Seattle thanks me again.
I didn’t know these doctors, but I know their despair. By speaking about my own pain, I validated their pain. By being vulnerable, I gave them the strength to be vulnerable too.
But mostly we healed each other by not being afraid to say the word suicide out loud.
There were so many wishes for a Happy Mother’s Day last Sunday. I hope yours was.
Most of us realize that Mother’s Day is not happy for everyone. It could be that you had a trying relationship with your mother, it could be that your mother is gone – temporarily or permanently. It could be that you wanted to be a mother and are not.
My mother passed away 10 years ago. All that remains are great memories and her funny sayings. My children live in different states, pursuing their lives. I used to let Mother’s Day really bring me down. I tried to ignore it. I tried to ignore my sadness. I’d spend the day with mother-like figures in my life or with young mom’s.
This year I’m looking at things differently. Instead of thinking about what I’m missing, I’m thinking of all I have. And maybe that’s because of all I would have lost if my suicidal thoughts had become a reality. I have 8 kooky, rebellious, clever, beautiful children. I have a husband I love dearly and who loves me almost as much (hehehe.) I’ve traveled around our country seeing so many beautiful places and meeting intriguing people. I’ve even had the experience of being a “rich American” in a developing nation but we called it a third world nation back then.
My health has managed to remain relatively good. I have learned from and been a blessing to hundreds of folks in my professional career. And now as I move into the second half of my time here on earth, I feel I have the opportunity to start fresh. To rethink how I will perceive my environment and to tell myself great things about ME.
I’ve learned that being thankful could pull me out of a blue funk. Saying thank you to God redirects my thinking. It puts my focus back on Him, rather than me. Perhaps my most often repeated scripture is Philippians 4:8 “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” – Holman Christian Standard Bible. God is true, honorable, just…so I dwell on Him.
I remember my mother saying “Thank you, Jesus” every time she came back in the house. I thought it was kinda cute back then. Now I have a better understanding of the dangers and struggles she might have faced as a single mother. I have a better appreciation of the simplest things and situations He’s given me and protected me from.
Thank you, Jesus.