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The Needless Death of a Doctor

Posted by David A. Couper, MA on October 15, 2015 9:00 AM

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Sometime in April, Dr. Jon Azkue committed suicide in his Chicago apartment, not far from where he worked as a senior internal medicine resident at MacNeal Hospital. Jon was 54 and had graduated from Central University in Venezuela.

We do not know what motivated Jon to become a doctor at an age when some people are starting to wrap up their careers, nor do we know what led him to be so filled with despair that he ended his life.

Here’s what we do know.

In the United States, each year we lose the equivalent of an entire medical school graduating class to suicide.

According to the New York Times:

Physicians are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as non-physicians (and female physicians three times more likely than their male counterparts).

As described in this same article, Pranay Sinha, a physician in his first year of residency, confessed over dinner his feelings of inadequacy to a highly-respected colleague.

Sick of feeling like a charlatan, I told him about the trouble I was having with collecting clinical data and presenting it in an organized way on rounds. I confessed that I did not think I belonged in the program. He listened thoughtfully, and then uttered the three most beautiful words I had ever heard: “Dude, me too!”

Physicians are trained to always be right and to be calm and collected at all times. In many respects, they are expected to be more than human… which is impossible because they are human.

Some make life and death decisions on a regular basis. To go to medical school, most endure insane hours and pressure, staggering debt, and an uncertain future.

To make matters worse, our healthcare system often gets inbetween physicians and their patients, confronting them with staggering bureaucracy that not even bureaucrats can tame.

When things go wrong, doctors are the ones who are in the line of fire. We blame them, even when things are far more complex than one man or woman being responsible.

My colleague, Dr. Carla Rotering, observes, “I think we are dying of broken hearts - both from suicide and from physical illnesses that take root in a body that is depleted of physical resources and of hope. The bar for physicians is set very high - by the public at large, by professional expectations, and by our inner agreement to those expectations. We silently agreed to ‘live up to’ those expectations when we entered the field. Now we feel like we have done our best to keep our end of the bargain, but the world of Medicine has not kept its promise to us.”

Dr. Rotering argues that many factors conspire today to put physicians at increased risk. She says, “Our isolation and separation - from one another, from our families, from the larger world - leaves us stranded, alone in the territory of our inner upsets, fears, fatigue, pain, suffering, hopes, longings, and tears.

“Our hearts are closed not just to patients, but to one another and to ourselves.”

I do not know why Dr. Jon Azkue took his life, but I hope his death can cause others to wake up to the fact that human beings require compassionate care. This is true for all humans, even doctors.

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