Many people do not realize the stress that health care workers live under every day and, in many ways, it’s our own fault. It is not in the nature of people who work in health care to call attention to the stress we experience. While many of us living closest to the risks of healthcare are beginning to speak about the worry and exhaustion we are experiencing, we are not expressing our greatest fears.

We can’t.

It’s overwhelming.

We get up every day and head into our jobs where life and death are always in the balance. Even in the professions who see the least sickness and death, there is always a risk that one or other will come to pass. We do everything we can to prevent the worst from happening but sometimes illness is just too strong.

Someone you thought was recovering will spike a fever suddenly. The tumour that had disappeared returns, after years of quietly lulling its host into a hopeful, recovered life. The boy who was so happy to have finished high school last week is found dead of an overdose two weeks later.

These situations recur, again and again, because that is the nature of illness. Even when the natural history shouldn’t surprise us, it does.

The wisest thing I learned as a Resident in Psychiatry was this one truth from my inpatient supervisor after a young man died by suicide:

“If there are no suicides in your practice, you are not really looking after anyone who is truly unwell.”

Everyone in healthcare must remember this, remember and honour the disease, still unpredictable for all we have learned and however much our knowledge has increased. Disease still has the power to take life and injure and our most important work is to provide care and comfort.

Most doctors of my generation and of those generations younger than mine have never faced a disease quite like COVID-19. Most of us are working harder through the pandemic than we have ever worked. We are capable of learning a lot of information fast and thoroughly. We know how to use that information efficiently and creatively to save lives and heal. Still, the intricacies of this new illness are baffling.

We work even harder and still the answers do not come. If politicians and those organizing the public response provide advice or guidance that does not follow science, we become even more distressed. We must express our concerns. If we do not so this, we feel ourselves to be negligent.

This is discouraging and, every day, I can see that my friends and colleagues are so exhausted and overwhelmed that they feel they must let people know. They must let patients and families and governments know that, unless there is action taken to reduce the spread of this disease, doctors and health care workers will succumb – to the illness, to the exhaustion, to the depression.

We are balancing on an illness tightrope, and we are working without a net.

(Note: This is Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Someone I know has said that this captures the terror he is feeling.)

10 thoughts on “Without a Net

  1. Joanne Ready says:

    I look forward, and do enjoy reading your blog. I thank you for your thoughtful words and mindfulness regarding those who care for others. This pandemic has certainly challenged many and brought a deep realization of the many gaps in systems we have been functioning under. I must say as a retired registered nurse who worked in oncology both in patient and outpatient; your observations had been on the radar for many years pre pandemic. Our collective strengths get us through day by day.

    1. drgailbeck says:

      Thank you for reading my blog. I had 2 aunts who were nurses and my sister was a nurse, so I have a special place in my heart for nurses.

  2. Donald Gilfix says:

    Dr.Beck, your continuing empathy in this difficult time is more appreciated then ever. As a individual you cannot change the overall response to the pandemic, but you can continue to help those in need that you care for as physician. Keep up the good work and try to staysafe!

    1. drgailbeck says:

      Thanks, Don – staying safe was certainly the theme this year!

  3. Andrew Fenus says:

    Thank you for expressing these important feelings and thoughts….I am always thinking of you and your colleagues, but not thanking you enough. Thank you for your dedication and courage. Thank you for the charity and the instilled hope that you foster. Thank you for being you.

    1. drgailbeck says:

      I just learned there are no emojis to reply with. 🙂

  4. Cheryl Jensen says:

    Necessary words for us to read Gail. Thank you.

    1. drgailbeck says:

      I was thinking of Lorraine too when I wrote this, Cheryl. Stay well!

  5. Anita Descheneau says:

    May I please post this on Facebook?

    Anita ________________________________

    1. drgailbeck says:

      Yes, please do – thank you!

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