When Patients Die, Do Doctors Cry?

At our recent med school batch reunion, many of us shared hopes and dreams for our children’s futures with old friends. One issue that came up often, and that I can’t recall being a part of my own career planning when I was in high school, was this…

A career is forever.

(Or, at least, for a sizable part of your future.)

And so, picking a profession or specialty isn’t something you’d do on a whim or fancy.

Knowing that your choice will relegate you to thousands of hours doing or working with a specific kind of client or technology or market drives home the critical importance of making that decision.

* If you choose to be a psychiatrist or counsellor, your professional life becomes a daily engagement with mentally disturbed individuals.
* Deciding to be an oncologist means your patients will all have life-threatening cancers, at least some of which you cannot cure.
* Opting for a career working with seriously ill children makes losing the battle from time to time a heart-wrenching reality you’ll have to live with.

I was reminded of an incident from a while ago, when I bumped into a friend who treats children battling cancer. She is an intelligent, compassionate and emotionally strong doctor. But eventually, she realized that the strain had become too much.

“It happened,” she told me, “when my young daughter asked ‘Mummy, have you forgotten how to smile?’”

The emotional burden of caring for terminally ill children had transformed her vivacious and cheerful nature into that of a shell-shocked veteran!

I have myself noticed a significant alteration in my state of peace and happiness when I moved out of a medical unit where we had an unduly high rate of surgical failures, to build my own practice (with lower mortality rates).

Yes, when patients die, doctors cry.

But inside.

Quietly.

(Because it’s unprofessional, otherwise).

The emotional challenge of dealing with the idea of little kids suffering heart birth defects is the hardest part of my profession, even though the technical ones of fixing a tiny organ are pretty tough in itself.

And it can be a devastating experience to have one’s little charges succumb to illness, leaving a caretaker feeling helpless, frustrated, impotent — and angry.

Every choice comes with consequences.

And for some, we pay a heavy price in exchange — every day.

Food for thought… while making career choices.

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