Doctors dealing with burnout and fear
It was a rare experience. Asked to conduct a virtual session with medical doctors from different parts of the country who were dealing with both fear and burnout, I decided to put down my thoughts on paper after a lengthy exchange, hoping that they could provide support to other medical practitioners in the forefront of the battle against the contagion.
“We did not sign up to die!” “The work on the ground and in the wards was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. I was so tired, almost near-breakdown,” one of the doctors said. Another put it bluntly: “For me, it was the fear. Every day I go to work, I ask myself: Is this the day I will get COVID-19? Or one of my companions in the team?”
“It was the anxiety of bringing home the virus and transmitting it to my family, especially since I have a four-month old baby,” said another. Moreover, “working in the ER COVID-19 complex, exposed to the summer heat, wearing PPE, it was unbearably hot!”
A cri de coeur (cry from the heart) from one of the doctors: “We did not sign up to die!” In a sense, this summed up the feelings of many — the fears, the stress, the anxiety and depression, sentiments certainly felt by other health workers such as nurses, medical staff, lab technicians, utility workers, all caught up in the same storm.
Our session came up with a few suggested ways to deal with the challenges confronted by medical practitioners.
Addressing our fears. To overcome the fear, we reached some kind of consensus:
Name that fear: We have to give the fear we feel a name, understand what it is that we are afraid of, and embrace it so we can begin to tackle the fear.
Get perspective: Examine the facts so we can reduce the uncertainties, reflect on the options available to deal with the fears, and think long-term while we grapple with the immediate reactions. For example, improve our protective gear while making regular testing available.
Get help: We need to get help, talk with others, and focus on others to overcome fear. We should never tire of taking regular breaks as well as participating in “team huddles” to keep our spirits up.
Addressing burnout. In dealing with burnout, we felt that our best options were to take a step back, to give ourselves time to breathe and relax, rest and recharge, and to draw strength from one another.
Take one step at a time: Breathing deeply, we might wish to take things in stride and explore ways to keep strong and keep safe — such as regular exercises, breaks, and medical check-ups — to give ourselves the required stamina for the long haul.
Reexamine our personal journey: The vocation to be doctors or medical/health workers is a calling to serve and heal others. This idea needs reaffirmation.
Give trust: “We cannot deal with our stress, anxiety and depressions alone; we need to trust each other and have each other’s back, and this is what will ultimately save us.”
Finally, we reminded ourselves that this could be the time to build our character for the long term, characterized by the following:
Courage: Not the absence of fear, but embracing fear to overcome it; moral courage that comes from within, born from conviction and strong faith.
Hope: Not the expectation of better times to come, but the “belief that a new day is possible because we strive to make it happen,” pursuing meaning in what we do and who we are.
Love: Remember that medical workers are the new heroes of our time, well-loved and held in high esteem. Having been the recipients of so much love, medical doctors and other health workers are now in a better position to give back love in return.
“We’re in this together!” Thus ended our session with virtual hugs, sharing energies and resources from within.
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Ed Garcia is a framer of the 1987 Constitution whose late father was a medical practitioner.
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