Compassionate physician - will it be tough?

The journey of pursuing my dream to become a physician has only begun, and “small baby steps” is my motto. So this post is mainly an episode of “what would I do if…?” One of the books I’m reading is “A life in Medicine.” In it, Jerome Lowenstein wrote an essay called “Can you teach compassion?” This got me thinking…
I am wondering how you residents and doctors deal with compassion and being sentimental. I mean, do you cry in front of your patients? Do you escape to places where no one else can disturb you (like in a bathroom stall)?
Of course, I’m not talking about all patients, but those that have touched your heart in one way or another. Those that may have lived a long life and are suffering now. Those that may have just experienced a few years of life and are suffering now. Those that have kids and responsibilities of their own and are suffering now.
Since you are a naturally caring person, you are more likely to be affected by such patients and situations. Because you see these things on a daily basis, you may not ALLOW yourself to be phased emotionally. What are some of your coping mechanisms? You see pain, gratitude, love, illness, hope, disappointment, and a plethora of emotions daily. You listen, heal, comfort, attend to patients’ medical needs, prescribe, monitor, and are a form of support. Isn’t it difficult not to feel attached to your patients?
Not to sound too soft, but I sometimes do wonder about how I will handle it one day. I doubt I’m the only one.
Your thoughts?

Hi there,
You can’t help crying sometimes. Things can be quite sad and I have never been one to hold back any of my emotions, good or bad. I recently had to tell an anxious mother that her 15-year-old daughter had died on the operating table. That was the hardest thing that I have done in medicine to date and yes, I cried. So did my attending physician. I watched a 72 year old gentleman cry as he said goodbye to his dying 91-year-old father who had just ruptured an 11-cm abdominal aortic aneurysm. He had 72 great years with his father and it was quite evident that there was great love between these men. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I have an attending physician whose every mistake takes a chunk out of her. She is a brand new attending but she really feels badly when one of her patients even has a complication. I admire her for the depth of her feelings towards her patients and she would be one of the first people that I would call if I needed surgery.
I do have great methods for shaking off the “day” and some of its sadness. I tend to do some physical exercise. I also find myself hugging Steve, my fiance, a little tighter sometimes because I can tell you that life is indeed very fragile and any of us can be gone in an instant.
This job is sad at times but it’s not tough. It’s a constant challenge to do well and keep up. There is so much reading and practice to hone a skill. Everytime I do a procedure or a case, I have more insight into the subtleties. This is still the most fun and the best job that I can think of.

Thank you for your reply and encouraging words. From what I hear, it’s going to be a challenge that is satisfying, uplifting, sad, emotional, inspiring, and much more all rolled into one. Looking forward to it all some day!

I’m not there yet but I often wonder if I’ll be able to cope with the emotional demands of this job. Do you ever get used to people dying? I think it’s going to be so sad and discouraging at times to feel so helpless when you’re doing your best to make other people better. I’m hoping that there will be some kind of cosmic “balance” that for every patient who doesn’t make it, there will be one that will and the ones you can save or help will be able to keep you going. I guess I’ll find out some day what it’s really like…if I can just get past the evil math professor.

A very appropriate article on Medscape -
The article is titled, “The First Loss” and is written by Daniel Egan, MD, a second-year emergency medicine resident in Boston.
I really like Medscape!