I am grateful for this special interview with Jennifer Simpson, director of communications for Physicians Working Together. I’d like to preface the interview by sharing some of my story from medical school and beyond. I hope it will encourage every reader, and I also offer it to honor the memory of my beautiful mother.
Medical training can be a lonely journey. Did you know that? If we’re not intentional, sometimes our studies and the intensity of the work take over our lives, and we find ourselves living from classroom to hospital room to bedroom with little else happening in between. On top of that, our personal lives don’t stop to give us time and space to finish our rigorous education. In fact, some of us have to cope with the toughest experiences in life during our training, and that becomes part of our story.
My journey through medical school was marked by grief, though I didn’t know enough to name it at the time, nor did I know how to “overcome” it. Just months before starting medical school, I lost my mom. My encourager. My cheerleader. The role model who saw a physician in me decades before I pursued this noble profession. With little warning, her smile, her stories, her loving way of saying my name, her singing and dancing, her joy … were gone from my life … in the blink of an eye.
I. Felt. Lost.
Not long after that, and still fairly numb to it all, I began what is arguably one of the toughest journeys anyone can pursue: the road to becoming a physician. And none of my classmates, professors, or anyone on the panel that interviewed and admitted me to med school … not even my roommates knew this until years later. Thank God for my then-fiancé (now my husband and father of our children) who supported me with such wisdom, humor, and the gift of his presence.
I mention this because I wonder how many medical students, residents, and physicians are out there struggling or suffering, but not telling a soul. Or if they say something, they are dismissed or made to feel “weak” or somehow not “fit” for medicine. Since I know this happens, my work now is to support my colleagues and remind them our patients need us precisely because we are human, not in spite of it! This is personal for me, perhaps because I know how important it is for each of us to be to seen, heard, and valued as human beings. So many settings now place profits over people, and we are often the first to feel the impact of these unethical, unwise, and harmful practices.
It was in residency that I began to take steps toward embracing the scope of my loss and, slowly, I began to accept it and heal. Eventually, I was surprised to recognize grief and suffering are close companions of joy, and part of the experience of a full life. In a way, I became more fully alive when I understood that suffering serves a purpose and accomplishes a work in the soul. This inner knowing brought a peace that endures, and I remain deeply grateful for these life-changing insights.
I believe this understanding is both vital and a source of fortitude for all of us in medicine, since our work is immersed in suffering — while also bringing great joy. Our ability to walk with people through their suffering is a deep source of joy because we know it matters for them to know they are not alone, they are seen, they are known, and, yes, they are loved. During the pandemic, I’ve heard heartwarming stories of people who recovered and recognize their physician or nurse by their eyes, which communicated so much concern, strength, and love despite a masked, shielded face.
In the days of COVID-19, it is perhaps more important than ever to recognize and meet the needs of the soul of the physician. This is especially true when so many of us cannot rely on the workplace to prioritize our needs — even basic needs like having adequate PPE to care for patients safely. Our need to have wise advisors, a strong support system, and avenues to debrief through the emotional tsunami and trauma of clinical work must be met daily with intention, not from time to time or once or twice a year at a special event.
My close encounter with delaying the necessary work of grief taught me the importance of addressing suffering, trauma, and crises proactively, particularly for physicians, nurses, and anyone caring for patients. This is an acute need during this pandemic that’s turned the lives of countless physicians and other medical professionals upside down, whether working in emergency rooms, hospitals, ICU’s, or in private practice. I encourage all of us to gather with trusted colleagues regularly to share stories, emotions, and life, either in person within safe parameters or virtually. It is essential not to isolate ourselves but to go through this together.
Now that I’m on the other side of my journey through (not around) grief, I can celebrate the blessing of having the mother I had and have, for her generous spirit and joy live on in every life she touched. I love knowing the conference room dedicated to her in Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor is still there — thirty years later — as a tribute to her integrity, honesty, selfless service, beauty, and her infectious joy of living. Having her as a mother was the foundation for who I am as a mother, physician, and advocate. She still makes my heart feel full, and deeply grateful.
All these thoughts went through my mind during and after this interview with Physicians Working Together (PWT), a physician-led, grassroots organization that exists to unite and support physicians around the world. PWT brings together physicians and medical students as well as allied health professionals and the public to improve the medical system — for everyone’s sake. PWT sponsors a variety of projects and events, including a medical student scholarship fund and National Physicians Week. I am honored for the opportunity to serve on their advisory board. You may click on the image below to hear our 15-minute interview. And if you’d like, come back to end with a poem!
To follow the interview theme of physicians being human first, I’ve included my poem by the same title.* And to learn more about Mami, you may read Lessons I Learned Watching Mom: A Mother’s Day Tribute.
by Amaryllis Sánchez Wohlever, MD
i am a physician
which means I’m first human
though the system tries to keep me
d e t a c h e d and r e m o v e d
alienated by computers or
too far from you
i don’t belong there
i belong with you
next to you
i am a human person
i am like you
it is in my humanity
that I can best
see you, hear you, serve you
i am a human being
just like you
and my heart
longs to know you
and, yes, with love
i am human
which is what you need
not one more machine
let me be human
and walk alongside you
believe me, i care
and healing dwells there
in the house of we
we heal together
living more fully
each of us more whole
each of us, now, healed
our humanity restored
we are human
i am human
a human, MD
© 2019 Amaryllis Sánchez Wohlever, MD. All Rights Reserved.
Stay well throughout the pandemic and beyond. Stay connected with people who care about you and help you prioritize your health and wellbeing. This will support your continued growth as a human being and enable you to serve others well, from a full heart.
* This poem was first published in my book, Recapturing Joy in Medicine.
Learn more about Physicians Working Together at www.best2gether.org.