What We Don't Talk About

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

When Dr. Lorna Breen died by suicide earlier this year, ripples of shock reverberated through the medical community. She could have been any of us. She was all of us. In the wake of her death her family described the horror she experienced as an Emergency Medicine physician in New York City at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (1)

The sheer volume of death witnessed by physicians and other healthcare workers during this pandemic would be unfathomable if it weren’t the reality so many of us are currently living.

The full impact of this magnitude of trauma on our physician workforce is yet to be realized, but it highlights a pre-existing vulnerability within our system: we don’t have space for physicians to process emotional trauma.

I can instantly recall the worst day of my medical career. It was a summer day during my third year of internal medicine residency when I was the MICU senior. It was the anniversary of my father’s death so I began the day in a place of grief and sadness. An hour into my shift there was a code on one of my patients. She had come in for an elective procedure and as a result of intraoperative complications was admitted to our ICU service.

We were not able to save her despite nearly an hour of resuscitation.

Her family was present during the code, crying and begging for her life in the hallway outside the room where we worked.