If there’s one piece of advice people in the healthcare system would tell you has saved their life, it’s “Don’t take it home with you.” Sounds heartless? Sounds trivial? It’s not.
Doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, the list goes on. People who see both the durability and fragility of life every day. People who witness what the human body is capable of recovering from, and what can end that regular, perpetual beating muscle that sits in the centre of your chest. Even as an inexperienced medical student I have stories to tell. Some are heartwarming, like a gentleman who we thought would likely die from a motor vehicle accident was miraculously walking weeks after. Or seeing someone my exact age talk about being excited to start a new job when a month ago they were committed to ending their own life. Yes, these are the moments that make working in the medical field rewarding, that makes that unplanned 15 hour shift worth it and motivates a shitty day. But for every uplifting tale we hear in the news or “like” on social media there is a gut wrenchingly sad and heartbreaking story to match.
I remember during my first clinical year in the hospital I befriended an elderly inpatient and ended up visiting her every day for 10 weeks. I saw her through every step of her admission, from moments when she was gravely ill and the entire team was prepared for her death, to her discharge 2 months later. We even took a photo together as she was excitedly getting ready to leave, and I still have it to this day. I was glad she was finally able to go home, and although I knew from doctors her poor health meant that she was unlikely to live for many more years, I didn’t think much of it until the phone call.
It came around 3 weeks after her discharge, I was in working in the hospital and noticed that I had a missed call from an unknown number with a voice message left in my inbox. Her sister’s voice sounded small and distant as she relayed to me the passing of this person I had seen more than anyone else in the hospital up til that point. I immediately called back, and clumsily tried to convey my condolences, feeling awkward and out of place. I was unsure of what to say, and when she broke down saying she hadn’t done enough, I had no idea how to console her. She was by her side every day at the hospital, and they had stuck together their entire lives. My words “you did everything you could,” sounded weak and insignificant, like trying to throw bandaids at a crumbling building. Perhaps it was because she thought I’d be interested as a medical student, but she described in detail what had happened, that my patient had died vomiting blood and bleeding from several orifices, stuck in the back of ambulance driving around trying to find a hospital with an open bed. That they had wanted to come back to hospital I was studying at but there was no space. What do you say to that?
I carried that piece of news with me for the rest of the day, and the day after that. I did not know what to do with the information, and was not sure how to feel. I couldn’t label myself as close to this person or having any involvement in her care, but I also had this connection that could not have meant nothing. I felt sad, but also strangely detached. I didn’t cry until I was telling one of my tutors what had happened, and was given some advice anyone who works in this field should take seriously. That perhaps I already knew. To look after my own mental health. As selfish as it sounds, terrible things happen in hospitals all the time. Many people do not make it. Many people suffer. Whilst the medical field is continually advancing and improving, it cannot save everyone no matter how hard we all want to. Simple decisions can have dire, unforeseen consequences that no one could have predicted and can literally mean “life or death.” And whilst it is undoubtedly the families left behind who hurt the most, the staff and workers feel pain too. But if we take these emotions and burdens home with us each day, it is not sustainable. Our mental health can only take so many blows, and there is a point where the weight of each failed resuscitation, each misdiagnosis, each signed death certificate will shatter a tenuously pieced together psyche. This does not mean to flick the switch on emotions and plunge head first into the darkness of psychopathy, but to remember that it is part of the job and to not let it bleed into our personal lives. A certain barrier must be created to protect the sanctity of our own sanity, for if medical workers carried the burden of every terrible thing they witnessed I think we’d all be worked to six feet under.
I must finish by stressing I do not mean to bottle up everything and avoid things, because we all now that only ends on combustion. Talking about things is imperative, because often we are our toughest critics. What I could have done better, what I would have done differently in hindsight. Having someone there who can view it with a fresh pair of eyes, and stop you from overthinking or ruminating over it can mean a world of difference. At the end of the day, you cannot look after someone else if you yourself are not well. Mental health is important, and regardless of what you do I think we are all allowed to be a little selfish and protect ourselves from the stress that work can bring.