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Home truths on ‘medicine’s dirty secret’

A round-up of medical news and oddities from left field

Home truths on ‘medicine’s dirty secret’

In a recent Dorsal View focused on the wisdom of Dr Paddy Barrett and his endeavours to improve the wellbeing of physicians under pressure, I touched on the disturbing rates of suicide among the medical profession. Doctors are far more likely to achieve ‘successful’ suicide than members of the general public, mostly because of their superior anatomical knowledge and access to pharmacological agents.

To build a little on the theme, I recently watched a fascinating TEDMED talk on the topic by US physician Dr Pamela Wible, who shares her own insights on the issue from a conference three years ago.

 Dr Wible grabs the audience’s attention by illustrating the methodical and creative ways in which doctors take their own lives via the case study of a young lady doctor who killed herself via asphyxiation due to helium inhalation — a physician who, according to Dr Wible, found herself in extreme psychological difficulty due to depression that went untreated all the way through medical school.

In the US, more than one million citizens lose their doctor due to suicide and despite their superior medical knowledge, some of these physicians chose their demise by jumping off the hospital roof or hanging themselves in the hospital chapel.

“It’s medicine’s dirty secret and it’s covered-up by our hospitals, clinics and medical schools,” Dr Wible points out. No hospital, medical school or clinic wants to be top of the table for these kinds of statistics but in a similar vein to Dr Barrett, Dr Wible found herself becoming something of a specialist in physician mental health, and particularly in the area of suicide. The issue would have been brought more to the fore by the fact that two aspiring doctors whom she dated in medical school took their own lives.

Her mobile phone has now become something of a hotline for suicidal doctors in the US and one of the striking examples of a communication she received from a retired surgeon reads as follows: “Dear Pamela, I was happy, secure and mostly unafraid until med school. I recall in vivid detail the first orientation day. Our anatomy professor stood before an auditorium filled with 125 eager, nervous, idealistic would-be healers  and said these words: ‘If you decide to commit suicide, do it right so that you do not become a burden to society.’ He then described in anatomical detail how to commit suicide.” Aside from the regulator, on the face of it, this lecturer should perhaps have been a person of interest for law enforcement authorities.

(Just especially for the pedants among our readers, the term ‘commit suicide’ is being phased-out in the modern lexicon because of its connotations with a time when taking one’s own life was a criminal offence.)

If you haven’t checked it out already, the TEDMED series provides some fascinating perspectives and a sideways look at the lesser-spotted aspects of being a medical professional and are well worth checking out. You might just find something helpful.

Modern medicine can have its drawbacks, but at least the issue of physician wellbeing is beginning to receive the attention it deserves in recent years. Nobody in difficulty is alone and if you’re not already aware, or even if you are, it’s worth mentioning again that the Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP) deals confidentially and compassionately with healthcare professionals and students in difficulty (https://practitionerhealth.ie/).

Don’t  let yourself or a colleague slip through the cracks.

Rapid discharge

Here’s a silly gag to round-off this issue’s offering. As always, any contributions are more than welcome at the email address at the bottom of this page.

A middle-aged woman has a heart attack and is taken to the nearest hospital. While on the operating table, she has a near-death experience. Seeing God, she asks: “Is my time up?” God replies: “No, you have another 40 years, two months and eight days to live.”

It’s a fancy private hospital with all the bells-and-whistles so upon her recovery, the woman decides to stay in the hospital and have a facelift, liposuction and a tummy-tuck. She even commissions a private hairdresser to come to the hospital and change her hair colour. Since she was told she has so much more time to live, she figures she might as well make the most of it.

After her last operation, the woman is released from the hospital. While crossing the street on her way home, she is hit by a car and dies immediately.

Arriving in front of God, she demands: “I thought you said I had another 40 years — why didn’t you pull me from out of the path of the car?”

To which God replies: “I didn’t recognise you.”

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