In the United States, 400 physicians commit suicide annually – an average of one per day. Physicians have the highest rate of suicide of any profession; almost double that of the general population. While physician suicide has reached epidemic proportions, the general public is relatively unaware of this tragic phenomenon. Robyn Simon has produced a documentary film, Do No Harm, to shed light on this taboo topic. Common Spirit Health/Dignity Health/CHI/Franciscan Hospital (formerly known as Harrison Memorial) is sponsoring a free screening of this movie in Kitsap County, scheduled for Friday March 22, 2019 at 6:00pm in the Bremerton High School Auditorium.
“Do No Harm” chronicles the journey of two families – the Dietls and Mechams – which share common insurmountable challenges during medical training. John and Michele Dietl lost their son Kevin to suicide 3 months before his graduation from medical school. Feeling hopeless during his fourth year of residency, Hawkins Mecham, DO, tried to take his own life.
Dr Mecham reached out to Dr. Pamela Wible, a friend and colleague who has focused her efforts on preventing physician suicide. Dr. Wible connected Mecham with the Dietls. John and Michelle were able to ask Mecham the questions that they could not ask their son and by sharing their story with Hawkins, he had more insight into those who are left behind after suicide.
I was twelve years old when the first physician I knew in Kitsap County committed suicide. He was a colleague of my father’s in a local multispecialty physician group. As a young girl, I went on occasional playdates with his children and attended birthday parties in their home. My father always described him as intelligent and kind. At that age, I could not fathom the wear and tear this career has on the souls of all physicians.
Physicians who die by suicide are struggling healers; they are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, colleagues, neighbors and friends. As a community, we must embrace those who are struggling and erase the stigma associated with depression, anxiety and suicidality. Physicians are reticent to share their personal and professional struggles with others out of fear from being labeled as being weak. This silence helps no one.
Like my esteemed colleagues, I have often felt overwhelmed by this challenging career, more so after the loss of my father and business partner eighteen months ago. The heartfelt and valuable advice shared nearly twenty-five years ago by a local gastroenterologist – Dr. Pankaj Sharma – has helped me cope through it all.
During my junior year in college, Dr. Sharma evaluated me for nonspecific abdominal pain with an upper endoscopy, a procedure where a thin scope with a light and camera at the tip is used to look inside the upper digestive tract, including the esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine, known as the duodenum. His evaluation yielded little in the way of a definitive medical condition.
At my follow up appointment, a stack of Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) study books accompanied me, because I did not want to lose a moment preparing for this exam. Dr. Sharma quickly realized my problem was more stress-related and shared some guidance: “The challenges you will face as a physician will be overwhelming. You must find a way now to accept the crushing demands medicine places upon us. If you cannot, you will never survive a career as a doctor.”
At nineteen, I did not fully grasp the significance of his words but after nearly two decades in this field, I know all-too-well how right Dr. Sharma was. Medicine is a science grounded in uncertainty; it is the weight of facing this ambiguity every day that exacts such a heavy toll. When physicians cannot cope with such doubt, it can manifest as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, or even, suicide.
The “Dr. Sharma talk” still resonates today. Despite giving patients our best, sometimes the negative outcomes are beyond our control. Physicians must be careful not to lose themselves while helping others. Failure is a part of medicine because it is an inevitable part of life. Grieving, when necessary, is important; every physician is, first and foremost, a human being.
Our nations healers –nurses, doctors and all of those working in healthcare — are suffering, they need our support, appreciation, gratitude, and forgiveness. Please know that when tucking our own children in at night, we are often thinking – and even dreaming – of yours. Please join the community for a screening of this courageous film: Do No Harm. Thank you to Common Spirit Health Hospital for bringing this film and filmmaker Robyn Simon to Kitsap County.
And I wish to thank Dr. Pankaj Sharma personally, for being the voice in my head whenever I struggle with the demands of a medical career. I have followed your advice by exercising every day, enjoying close relationships with my patients, and writing openly about my frustrations working in a healthcare system that no longer makes sense. Please know your work has made a world of difference.