Phy·si·cian /fəˈziSHən noun: a person qualified to practice medicine. a person who cures moral or spiritual ills; a healer.
This week is National Physicians’ Week, with March 30th being designated as a day to recognize and celebrate us as a profession. However, in this current environment we may not feel appreciated, in fact, it may be the opposite.
Electronic medical records (EMR), administrative and/or insurance requirements and the increasing demands on our time unfortunately take us away from what we love doing the most: caring for our patients. Losing our autonomy, our jobs being taken by those who are less qualified and cyber-bullying of physicians by anti-vaxxers has led to anger and disillusionment with our profession. The rates of physicians leaving medicine, working side-gigs, burnout, moral injury and sadly physician suicide are at an all-time high.
Did you know that to become a physician, we have at least 11-15 years of school and training, working at least 80 hours/week, and getting paid less than minimum wage?!? Did you know that most medical students accrue at least $200,000 in debt that is still being paid off well into our careers? I still remember my 20’s, aside from getting married, that entire decade was spent either in school or in a hospital…studying and caring for patients, working nights and weekends. As a woman physician, I have missed school events, been judged by other women for not staying at home with my own children and was actually asked by another mother how I could leave my own children to care for other children?
However, despite all of this, applications to medical school are at an all-time high!! Why? Because being a physician, healing and caring for others, is still one of the best and most honorable professions. As a pediatrician, I care for children from the time they are born up until they enter adulthood. I have mothers and families trust me with their most precious jewels…their children.
On a daily basis, I get smiles, snuggles and slobber from my patients. But it is so much more than that. I have the privilege of seeing children grow and develop right in front of my eyes. They start as infants and turn into these amazing walking and talking toddlers and eventually enter adolescence. And throughout these phases, I am entrusted with their care—both physical and emotional.
But, as we all know, being a physician, practicing medicine has its ups and downs. While I have hugged a new mother and congratulated her on how wonderful she is doing with the sleepless nights and constant breastfeeding, I have also hugged and consoled a mother when the baby is born with a congenital issue or contracts an illness requiring them to be in the hospital. I have held the hands of mothers who confide in me the abuse their child has suffered or the domestic violence they themselves have experienced but are too scared to ask for help. I have given advice to mothers who feel helpless about their horrendous living conditions that affect their child’s health but they are too afraid to complain to the landlord for fear of becoming homeless. I have comforted and consoled families when I have to tell them of their child’s diagnosis that relegates them to a life filled with specialist appointments, medications and multiple hospital admissions. I have attended funerals of my patients who have passed away trying to console mothers in their time of utmost grief while holding in my own tears.
However, despite the challenges we face as physicians, the honor and pure joy I feel in taking care of, in my humblest opinion, the utmost cutest patients, surpasses the struggles we face as physicians. And while our jobs are stressful, our days are long and the demands by non-physicians continue to undermine what we do, I am reminded that this is not just a job, not just a career. It truly is a calling. Whether you care for elderly patients or babies, whether you operate on one part of the body or focus on the entire patient—we are all doing what we are meant to do.
However, I do not recommend going into medicine for the wrong reasons (money, prestige, family obligation)—it is a difficult profession and you must love it to do it well and to handle all that comes with it. And for those thinking about medicine or at the beginning of their training: you will falter, you will be tired and you will question it, but just stay the course. Your diligence will pay off. Lean on your colleagues as they know what you are experiencing. Surround yourself with friends and family that support you so when you leave the hospital you can turn off that part of your day. Find or maintain those hobbies that sustain you, make you happy as an outlet to work out your frustration. And be sure to sleep when you can.
It was a long road filled with struggle and sacrifice to get here, but I can honestly say that I would do it all over again. To my patients and their families, THANK YOU for allowing me to care for your children and for giving me the privilege of watching them grow. To my nurses, social workers and staff, thank you for supporting me as we try to give the best care to our patients. And finally a huge thank you to my professors, mentors, colleagues and all those who pushed me and continue to support me and for those family and friends who are there for me to share the sorrows and joys of my day.
This past month, a teenager came to my office and admitted to me that he had tried to kill himself by placing a noose around his neck. He had stopped himself because he thought of his mother and how much it would hurt her. However, he was not comfortable talking to her about how sad and hopeless he felt. The mother was devastated, crying and feeling guilty that she did not know how he son was feeling, what he had tried to do. I sent him to the ER where he was admitted to an in-patient psychiatric facility. Two weeks later, I saw him in my office for follow-up. Instead of a non-verbal, sullen-looking teen, I was greeted with a smile, a teen who was cracking sarcastic jokes with me! This time, mom was crying tears of joy—hugging me and thanking me with her smile. At the end of the visit, he shook my hand and I told him how happy I was that he was feeling better. As I walked back to my office, the mother called out to me. My patient turned his back to the exit and came towards me—and gave me a hug. A big hug. I gave mom a knowing look as we both had tears in our eyes. After he left, I went into a corner and just cried—cried in front of my nurse, social worker and resident. So just know, that each and every day, big and small, that we as physicians, we DO make a difference.
Natasha K. Sriraman, MD MPH FAAP FABM is an Academic Pediatrician and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of the Kings’ Daughters/Eastern Virginia Medical School. She is an Editor for the Women In White Coats blog and coauthor of “The Chronicles of Women in White Coats.” Find her on IG @Natasha.Mom.MD, also at www.natashamommd.com.