Have you left a doctor's office feeling frustrated because you simply can't seem to find a connection? Why do some doctors seem so rude and emotionless?
I remember the support group instructor seeking our candor as he asked, “How are you all emotionally dealing with dissecting a cadaver?” I was relieved to hear this question. And asking it was appropriate and very professional on the faculty’s part, a way of addressing our internal struggles head-on. I have always been grateful for my education at Drexel University, and this is one of the numerous reasons why.
In my conversations with other medical students, a few did reveal their emotional struggles (whether it was spiritual, religious, or personal) with encountering a corpse face to face. However, when the instructor asked for our personal perspectives, I was surprised to find that no one voiced their thoughts, their unsettling feelings about working with cadavers for the first time. My classmates were afraid to discuss their emotions in an atmosphere where “sharing your feelings” is typcially discouraged, despite how much our instructor prodded. How can you blame them?
Finally, there was one student who spoke up, and whose words I will never forget. He said that he sought to view the cadaver as an “object,” so that he could complete the dissection tasks But it was only when he viewed the cadaver’s hands that this person became "real" to him. “You do a lot with your hands,” I remember him saying.
He, too, was struggling to resist those emotions.
Then, there is that one patient who feels like a thousand patient encounters, who really makes your heart sink.
There eventually came a point when the shock of confronting a deceased human evaporated for us, and we finally got down to work. We felt grateful and respectful towards this kind soul who sacrificed his body for our education. There was a sense of peace and calmness to the entire process.
Now, as a ripe physician able to reflect on my journey, I have finally understood the complex reasons behind the detached doctor phenomenon: it’s a coping mechanism.
Sometimes, it’s necessary for physicians to build a concrete wall to guard their emotions. Otherwise, it would be challenging to function through our day-to-day lives as healers. Because, truly, after seeing a sick patient after sick patient, if you allow yourself to feel too much, it can significantly wear you down and render you dysfunctional.
Imagine experiencing these intimate, defining moments every single day: doctors see an average of 20 patients, several of whom are either very ill or possibly dying. A couple more suffer from major depression, and possibly even contemplating suicide. Another one or two are infuriated with you for caring enough about them to deny the very drugs that are driving their addiction. Several others may be frustratingly non-adherent to their treatment, and their health is deteriorating irreversibly as a result.
Then, there is that one patient who feels like a thousand patient encounters, who really makes your heart sink because frankly, he or she is one of the nicest people you have ever met, and there is something very serious going on with their health ... and it's truly unfair.
Hopefully this provides some perspective as to why some physicians may appear to be stoic or cold, even rude, on the outside. I do believe that some very talented and socially-adept physicians learn to balance compassion with emotional detachment, which should always be our goal. But for the rest, it’s simply about learning to cope, a survival of the fittest. Because, how else can we function in our day-to-day lives? How else can we go home and leave it all behind?
Side note: deep down ... we don't. We think about, and sometimes even excessively ruminate, over the tragedies we encounter as physicians.
We just don’t admit it.
Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.