One of the best but also emotional parts of my job advising students was hearing about their experiences in medicine. I was very moved by what one amazing young woman shared with me. She spent several years volunteering and doing research in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Within her first few days there, she witnessed several events she will never forget. First, she got to be in the room and watch as a team of doctors and nurses delivered a premature but healthy baby. The look of relief and joy on the parents’ faces has really stayed with her.
She also experienced the toughest part of being in the NICU: seeing babies die. Many of the babies were so premature that their skin had a paper-like quality to it and they fit in the palm of your hand. Whenever a baby died, the doctors, residents, medical students, nurses, and staff stopped to take a moment and honor that baby. Then, they would go back to doing everything they could to save the other NICU babies as well as comforting the parents facing an unimaginable loss.
Several of my posts have touched on loss and resilience. I return to these topics because I view them as incredibly important parts of medicine and life. The parents facing the loss of their newborn child mourn not only who the child would have grown up to become but also the impact that child would have had in shaping their own lives. This loss of identity happens to many patients. A cancer patient may fear that the removal of her breasts will mean a loss of her identity as a woman. A diabetic facing the possibility of amputation may worry about a loss of independence and the ability just to walk normally.
As doctors, you will have patients and their families who will be coping with loss in its many forms. Being able to help them learn about resilience and how to tap into their ability to redefine themselves will make a huge difference in your patients’ recovery. The next time you handle loss on a personal level, take time to reflect on the process you use to bounce back and what you learn about yourself. These are the types of unplanned experiences that will make you a better doctor.