In my last post I talked about how difficult it is for those in medicine to repeatedly come face to face with human suffering. Whether it was the consequences of personal choices or due to unfortunate circumstances, the burden of caring for the sick can weigh heavily on the soul. It’s sad that even though medical training strives to raise up compassionate healers, people often come out jaded and cynical instead. Here are just a few things that have helped (and continue to help) me on the way.
1. Take a time-out
Medical training is such a hectic process, especially during your intern year. There is just so much to do you’ll be running around like a chicken with its head chopped off, rushing from floor to floor, patient room to patient room. Sometimes you just need to mentally check out for a moment. There was this place outside the hospital I would go to from time to time just to re-group. Even if you can’t escape the clinic or hospital, pausing for a minute before seeing the next patient can help to let your emotions catch up to your body so that you can be fully present.
2. Learn your patients’ names
It’s amazing how there are days I can’t remember a single name of the patients I saw that day. This might seem counter-intuitive, that the more you get to know a patient, the harder it will be emotionally if things take a turn for the worse. But I think it is the dehumanizing of our patients that makes our jobs seem pointless and futile. Our patients become just another thing to fix, another obstacle asking of us our energy and time that is already so limited. But connecting with patients as people can help us celebrate with them the small victories even if there’s no ultimate cure.
Our experiences are meant to be processed, not buried away. I started my book project wanting to be helpful to others. After I finished writing, I found that there was something hugely therapeutic in revisiting my training experience and working through the lessons that I learned. If no one buys or reads the book, it would have played an important role in helping me articulate one of the hardest seasons of my life. You don’t need to write a book, but who knows, maybe one day your ramblings can turn into one.
4. Connect with others
This is along the lines of number 3. Medical school and residency were my loneliest times, even though their were plenty of people around. It’s hard to talk to others about our experiences because either we don’t want to be a burden, or we don’t think others will understand. The problem is that we are created as relational beings, so we do need others to help us process. Don’t forget your relationships, particularly your spouse. And sometimes professional help might be necessary. There’s no shame in this; some of the situations you’ll face will be intensely traumatic. There are resources available through your program so don’t be afraid to seek those out.
5. Keep the eternal perspective.
As high a calling it is to care for people’s physical body, we have to be reminded that there is a higher, spiritual reality. In the words of Dr. Cox from Scrubs, “Sooner or later, you’re going to realize that everything we do around here, everything is a stall. We’re just trying to keep the game going, that’s all. But, ultimately, it always ends up the same way.” The decay of our bodies and eventual death is inevitable, and while our job is to hold back the tide, our job as Christian physicians is, through our care of the physical, to point people to a deeper spiritual healing that we all need. This is where we need to remember God’s promises that He will one day make all things new.
This is just a short list of things I found helpful that I am still learning to do as I continue in my career as a physician. The road is a difficult one. My prayers go out to those who have embarked on this journey.
What has helped you from developing cynicism and becoming jaded?