Breaking the Silence: Boston Marathon bombings
Scores of others were not so lucky, however, and had to wait anxiously for hours or longer to find out if their loved ones were okay. One of those people is an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, Leana Wen, MD, who is also an author and essayist as skilled with words as she is with a scalpel.
Dr. Wen’s husband was at the Boston Marathon finish line. It took hours for Dr. Wen to receive confirmation that her husband was safe. All that time as she was treating victims of the bombing, she was terrified that her husband might be her next patient. When she finally spoke with her husband, she felt a mixture of relief and guilt – guilt because, as she put it “What kind of person was I to wish this horrible suffering on someone else’s family instead of mine.”
In several published articles, Wen vividly describes her experience in the ER that day. First, they transferred most of their patients to other parts of the hospital to make room for the wounded.
“Moments later, the doors flew open,” she writes. There were ambulances as far as I could see. The first patient: pulseless, not breathing, both legs blown to shreds. The second: covered with blood, no blood pressure. The third: covered in soot, one leg gone.”
Still waiting to hear from her husband, Dr. Wen describes her mounting anxiety.
“An hour passed. Friends called me to say they were OK, but nothing from my husband. I kept texting: Where are you? I love you.
“Two hours later, a cellphone rang. A nurse, a surgeon and I all reached for our pockets, but it wasn’t ours.
“The phone was in a pile of clothes in the corner, in the tan slacks of my patient who had gone to the operating room to complete his amputations. I picked it up and saw the message that had come through: ‘Where are you? I love you.’”
Dr. Wen admits that the experience has given her nightmares.
“At work, I feel numb to my patients’ suffering,” she writes. “At home, I break down and cry. Then I feel guilty. Who am I to have these emotions, when so many others suffered so much?”
Dr. Wen was brave to publicly address an issue that most healthcare professionals want to keep hidden: clinician grief. Many clinicians still feel there is an unwritten code that you must keep all feelings of sadness and grief to yourself. That was my understanding as young physician.
One of the most searing emotional experiences I’ve had as a physician occurred early in my career when I was still a medical student. I was doing a pediatrics rotation at Hennepin County Medical Center when my call beeper went off and I ran to the Emergency Room. The resident was already there trying to revive a four year old child who had darted into the street and was run over by a car. The child was crushed by the car and we could not save him. After the child died, I went to the family room with the resident to deliver unfathomable news: their child was gone. Their wails of pain and sorrow pierced my soul. To this today, I still have occasional flashbacks of trying to resuscitate the child and I can still hear the anguished cries of his parents.
I have written about this topic previously. In my blog post from June 2012, “Clinician Grief,” I shared some other personal experiences and discussed a clinical study on grief among healthcare professionals.
I commend Dr. Wen for her candor in sharing her personal feels about a public tragedy. If you would like to share your experience of dealing with grief in your professional life, please feel free to comment below.