A Pandemic Doctor Assesses the Breakage in His Life

Physician trainee dealing with burnout wonders whether he can be put back together
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 8, 2021 7:40 PM CST
A Pandemic Doctor Assesses the Breakage in His Life
A couple in Lima, Peru, last month walk past portraits of doctors who have died of COVID-19.   (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

The medical profession is well aware of burnout, defining it as "a syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work." It affects as many as 75% of physician trainees such as Sudhakar Nuti. That means 25% don't deal with burnout, Nuti points out in an opinion piece in STAT News. He can't imagine how they've avoided it during the pandemic, while he—working 80 hours per week at a primary care clinic in Massachusetts—has been affected for a year.

Employers make an effort to help, Nuti writes, by providing free dinners, listening sessions, or a Patagonia jacket as a thank-you—"imagining my life can be fixed with an opportunity for reflection and another fleece." Discussions about helping with burnout center on self-care as a cure. That's a misunderstanding, Nuti says. "What's never spoken is that burnout is the remnant of a fire. I've never seen a piece of charred wood and thought that some time by itself and some water will restore it to its former state," he writes. The damage can be irreparable, Nuti said, "and I haven’t heard anyone admit that."

Nuti wonders whether he, and his life, can be put back together, or if the changes are irreversible. In practicing medicine during the pandemic, he learned "I was not a healer, just a messenger of death." Nuti recalls using inadequate personal protection equipment early on, as patients coughed "SARS-CoV-2 particles in my face" and he wondered when he'd contract the disease himself. Bound by anxiety, Nuti feels less than whole, not enough of a full person for others, unable to hold up his end of a relationship. He says he's in pieces. (You can read the full article here.)

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