like breath in our lungs / we do not notice it / until it is gone
A recent publication in the Journal of Neurology caused significant outrage not only within a forum dedicated to Black doctors and trainees, but also in the medical community online at large. Much like the rest of the readers, I was deeply troubled and did not understand the purpose of the article.
The road to medical school mostly requires good grades in the hard sciences, high entrance exam scores, volunteering, and other quality extracurricular experiences. Once in medical school, the curriculum is a rollercoaster ride of learning anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis, and treatment. At first glance, the journey seems to leave little room for anything else. Along the way, we also often hear about cultivating behavioral decorum and social intelligence as soon as our third year clinical rotations begin, or possibly even sooner.
It is 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and 250 medical students are filing into the lecture hall to listen to a lecture on health care and society. The chatter is not one of excitement, but of disconcertment. Many students complain that their time would be better spent studying hematology. These are not uncaring students who disavow the needs of the disabled, but a generation that demonstrates a palpable reaction to the way that medicine is taught. We may be quick to fault them for their alarming aversion to a discussion on ethics, but we must also consider: is ethics meant to be force-fed?
Few doctors in the modern era have established themselves so securely as both doctor and writer as to be easily recognized in both circles; this is perhaps because of the difficult and time-demanding nature of both careers. One notable exception is Dr. Atul Gawande, a renowned general surgeon in Boston, MA, who also happens to be a widely published and well-known author of several books. In his most recent book, “Being Mortal,” it is clear that he has grown, not only as a writer, but as a doctor and a human being as well – which, after all, is what this book is all about.
It is no great mystery that burnout is prevalent in the field of medicine, and it almost seems as if studies and articles highlighting this sad and disturbing truth are published daily. The reality is that doctors and doctors-in-training often struggle with their profession of choice, citing disillusionment, depression, long hours, exhaustion and lack of empathy as either symptoms or causes of feeling burnt out.
History and the greater emergence of medical presence in popular media have placed physicians on a pedestal where they command significant power and respect. As healers and scholars who are privy to the secrets of the human body, physicians are often expected to shoulder great responsibilities for their fellow human being while still maintaining their own mental well-being.