Once again, I ask my friends: How are you?
I am not great!! Neck, back and head pain, insomnia, low mood, and the worst case of stress eating in a couple years—GRRRRRRRR! *deep breath* …So, like a good primary care doctor (she says with tongue in cheek), I evaluate and treat myself.
I ask patients to rate the stress and meaning of their work and then compare: Is work overall more stressful than meaningful, or the other way around? It helps me assess the sustainability of their work life, and gives me insight into their values and priorities. In recent years when I’ve asked myself, the answer is consistent: moderate stress, HIGH meaning. Today it’s high stress, less high meaning. For the first time in a long while, work is not necessarily more meaningful than stressful. Yikes.
Stress: It’s COVID.
Meaning: I ask patients how they derive personal fulfillment and meaning from work. I recently asked myself again. It’s twofold: Relationships and Efficacy.
Relationships: I am your primary care doctor. Sometimes I’m your therapist, your cheerleader, your drill sergeant, and your accountability buddy. I have always loved this, even on the hardest days. But this year, I am also a resolute public health advocate. Sometimes that rubs you the wrong way, because I tell you things you don’t like. I recommend against flying. Don’t eat at restaurants. Don’t gather with your family for the holidays. Don’t go to church. Stay home for 14 days after an exposure. I interrogate your COVID precaution practices. Then I dissect and judge them (not you), thank you on behalf of humanity, and admonish you to persist, longer and longer, for all our sakes. It kinda puts a damper on our relationship.
Efficacy: I. Help. People. It’s my calling! Hemorrhoids? No problem. Back pain? I’ got this (yer back, that is). Viral gastro? Migraine? Core instability, palpitations, paresthesia, GERD, thyroid nodule—even depression and anxiety—I can make a good plan for all of these things. I can walk you through it, reassure you, and help you feel better, even when I can’t fix the problem.
Not so with COVID. How did you get it, when you were so careful? If the test is negative there’s still a 20-30% chance you’re infected if the scenario is high risk, but I can’t say for sure. If you’re sick, how long will it last? Will it get worse before it gets better? How much worse? Will you have lasting symptoms or long term health problems? How long does immunity from illness or vaccine last? I cannot lie: I. Don’t. Know. I will stay with you through it, but I can’t even satisfy your most basic questions, while you sit alone at home coughing, short of breath, unable to see or touch your loved ones, sipping ginger ale because you throw up anything else. I can’t help. And it kills me.
On top of that, I’m not doing any good as a public health champion, either! Have I changed any of your behaviors? Have I made even an iota of difference in my community to stop the spread? All signs say NO. I’m failing left and right. No wonder I’m eating so much.
Burnout is widely understood to have three key components: 1. Emotional Exhaustion, 2. Cynicism/Depersonalization, and 3. Reduced Personal Efficacy. Studies of physicians generally show that while we often score high on the first two, we do better with the third. I think not anymore. Burnout affected about half of all physicians in all specialties a few years ago, but had improved due to widespread research, awareness, and advocacy for systemic change led by professional societies such as the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Practice. But think about 2020: Whatever emotional exhaustion my emergency medicine and critical care colleagues felt before, caring for the sickest of the sick, likely pales in comparison to the horrors of this pandemic. When their health systems ignored their pleas for PPE and then laid them off, making remaining docs work that much harder, and when they saw people partying and spreading virus all over the place, could you blame them for getting cynical? And though we’ve learned so much and fatality rates are lower now than in March, imagine going to work every day to watch patient after patient suffer and die alone, despite your and your team’s best efforts. We can no longer count on efficacy to save our morale.
So how do we hold it together? Well DUH, it’s about connection! I had not felt this bad in a long time, but I’m better now, thanks to my peeps. They’re everywhere, and we hold each other up. Texting a meme here, venting (a lot) over there, and generally being present for one another, sharing, even embracing, the deep suck of the morass. Because this too shall pass… Like a kidney stone, as they say.
The only way out is through. The best way through is together.
I haven’t thought, said, or written that in a while. It’s not that I forgot. I got overwhelmed. Happens to the best of us.