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Voices for physician mental health

I’ve been honored and privileged to have had recent conversations with two courageous women: Betsy Gall and Pamela Marie Hobby.

Pamela met a medical resident who changed the course of her life on October 28, 2019, and Betsy’s life was forever changed exactly one month later, on November 28, 2019.

Betsy wrote a book to share her family’s story. The title grabbed Pamela immediately, as it aligned with what she was building with My Doctor’s Meds, whose mission is to help the healers. Pamela asked if they could connect. They became pen pals and confidants and now talk on what they refer to as “Super Soul Sundays,” discussing various ways to support clinician wellness.

Here are their stories.

Betsy Gall

My name is Betsy Gall, and I recently wrote a book about love, physician suicide, and finding comfort and purpose in the aftermath. It is titled The Illusion of The Perfect Profession.

First and foremost, my goal in sharing our story is to raise awareness so no other family has to go through what we have gone through. By raising awareness, I hope health care organizations, hospital administrators, other physicians, their families, and friends, as well as the public, understand why physician suicide can happen and know what to look for if a physician is struggling. Our story is just one story, but there are countless others.

I also hope that by sharing our story, we can help normalize talking about mental health issues because I know from the bottom of my heart that if my husband had sought and accepted help, this wouldn’t have happened.

I am not a mental health care professional. I am a real estate agent, landlord, and investor. I like to remodel homes and make them beautiful. Matthew and I used to joke and compare notes about our days at the office. My work is mostly fun and happy, while his work as an oncologist is always serious and sometimes sad. Our discussions always put everything into perspective for me.

I am not an expert on physician suicide, but sadly, I was married to a physician who died by suicide. Matthew was under constant pressure. Decreasing reimbursements, administration issues, declining salary, political garbage, EMR systems that were difficult to navigate, constant surveys regarding performance: It was a lot!

Taking care of the terminally ill can be extremely stressful just in itself. Being on-call was always an issue; I have yet to meet a doctor who enjoys taking calls. On top of all that, I have found that people expect doctors to have all of the answers all of the time; they are always on call, and that’s a heavy load for a person to handle. Matthew was always willing to help friends and family and give his opinion, but it never ends. Sometimes you just want to come home and chill, but that is not the norm for most doctors. Matthew frequently said, “I love my patients, but I hate my job.”

After a job-related move to North Carolina, Matthew did the unthinkable and took his own life on Thanksgiving Day of 2019. It has left our family shattered and asking, “How could this happen?” I have come to find out that, unfortunately, it actually happens quite frequently. We lose a doctor a day to suicide. It is heartbreaking, and we all need to work together to change the broken system!

Pamela Marie Hobby

The mission of the company I founded, My Doctor’s Meds, found me in the fall of 2019. Upon telling my story to a pediatric resident, sharing all the ways I was grateful to medical professionals for saving my life, I urged him to keep going. Showing him my childhood pictures of treatment for leukemia, he asked if I was really this vibrant adult in front of him. Suddenly, the hope began to leave his eyes. Darkness crept in as he covered his mouth, saying, “Sometimes I’m afraid I’m becoming numb to it all.” The hopelessness I saw scared me. How was it possible that he was showing early devastating signs of burnout while embarking on a life of helping others?

My husband said, “Outside of doctors and nurses, who understands the burdens that clinicians bear for society? Well, patients do.” So we set out to help!

The carousel analogy: The doctor and patient step onto the “carousel ride” with all the ups and downs of diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. All are invested in the journey. Favorably or unfavorably, the patient steps off the ride, leaving the doctor alone, without knowing how the family is doing or how the patient’s life continues after.

A clinician could care for thousands during their career, but because of HIPAA, one thing remains the same: The patient gets “off the ride.”

While out to dinner with my cardiologist friend, he couldn’t stop staring at a family across the restaurant. Seemingly unable to take his eyes off them, he said with a smile, “He looks good! I performed open heart surgery on him. Look at his beautiful family enjoying dinner!” There was a deep yearning to know more.

Why are we not trying it all? Let’s move policy like the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation! Let’s have the courage to write a book like Betsy Gall’s The Illusion of the Perfect Profession! Let’s send monthly thank-you/check-in emails to our doctors like Kim Downey.

Perhaps an antidote to all of the science is dipping a toe into the well of creativity and humanity, by telling our stories, by laying our hearts bare, by saying thank you.

I challenge everyone to step back onto the ride and close the loop on the clinician/patient bond. Seek out your former clinicians and ask them how they are doing. Let them know how you are doing and say, “Thank you!” Turn it back into the kind of carousel we all long for – a moment to watch the world go by on the elephant’s back, music playing, with the wind in our hair.

Kim Downey is a physical therapist.

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