A Personal Story of Loss by Suicide (Part 1 of 5)

Sept 17 is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day

Ever since the fateful day when I walked through the tunnel joining our office building to the parking lot and discovered the limp, lifeless form of my friend and colleague, I have wrestled with the meaning and value of our work, our lives, and our calling as physicians. My friend ended his very fruitful life in despair, having been systematically and relentlessly devalued over the years by the very career to which he had given his heart, mind, body, and soul.

This good physician moved through his days at the hospital with a warm, open smile for everyone, all the while struggling in a health care system that is often unwelcoming to solo practitioners. In the early 2000s, he enjoyed a stable practice and was an inspiration to those of us who encountered him each day. His dedication and work ethic were clear for all to see. He always wore a short white coat, a white shirt, and khaki pants. That was his uniform. Behind his spectacles, he had kind blue eyes. A dermatologist, he had great skin. Disciplined, highly observant, ethical in large and small matters, this man possessed an immense desire for lifelong learning. His enthusiasm was contagious. He took great pleasure in spontaneously sharing his knowledge and findings.

I knew him as a physician since 1995, and from 2007 I knew him as a colleague when I became chair of the department of medicine and he was a faculty member. Our offices were across the street from the hospital. I was on the second floor and he was in private practice on the fourth floor where he was leasing space from the hospital. A tunnel connects the hospital and office buildings. Our paths would cross in the tunnel, and he would always take time to wish me well, and I would wish him well in return. Having passed each other several times one day, he noticed a spot on my cheek.

“Mukta, I need to take a look at that.”

“Sure, doctor,” I said, but I didn’t make an appointment.

A few weeks later he saw me again and said, “When are you coming to see me?” It would take several more kind prompts before I finally heeded his concern.

   

His office was full of stories. He still preferred paper charts to electronic medical records. His nurse greeted me with a warm smile; she had been with him for over fifteen years. He proudly showed me a photograph of himself with two of his three sons and his son-in-law on the golf course at the Masters in Augusta. This was a gift of love to him from all his children and their families. His shelves held photos of patients and exotic places around the world. Potted orchids of different hues were all over his office.

During my appointment, he explained about my skin lesion and took time taking my full medical history. The good physician gave me detailed instructions about why I needed to get it taken care of, explaining the importance of the skin as an organ. He emphasized the importance of sunscreen.

“I love growing orchids,” he said, “but I garden before the sun comes up or after it sets. Even then, I always wear sunscreen.” His skin was immaculate even though he was seventy-six years old.

“I know about sunscreen now in America,” I said, “but I never grew up with sunscreen in India.” I enjoyed speaking with him. You could easily spend an hour or more in his company because he had so much to talk about. That appointment really began our relationship. He helped me take care of that lesion, which could have been precancerous.

Only one thing seemed almost at odds with his kindness and compassion. That was his attachment to his designated parking space next to our office building. Nobody was allowed to park in his spot, even if it was empty. One time, my daughter parked there for a few minutes to briefly visit me. He left a stern sticky note on her windshield. It said something like, “This spot is reserved. Do not park here. Please move the vehicle immediately.” That was his one pet peeve. We respected it. I took him an orchid as a peace offering and we laughed about it afterwards.

   

Around 2015 there was a lot of change within the organization, including a reengineering of the building spaces for physicians and patients. I had made my decision to step down as department chair and was moving into the dean’s office. It was autumn and we were all busy moving.

One Wednesday afternoon he stopped by my office. I was surrounded by boxes. “Mukta, I need to know what to do,” he said. “They’re asking me to leave my office. I need to work and take care of my wife.” He’d brought a big portfolio of photos he had prepared for teaching. “Look, I want to teach. I have all this teaching material.” He hated technology, but had gotten a computer and trained himself to make PowerPoint presentations, converting his old slides into PowerPoints. “I want to continue doing this.”

“Who is they?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. I got an email from the hospital telling me to move.”

“Look, I’m moving too. This is an institution-wide change. Have you thought about joining the hospital practice?”

“Yes, but you know how I like my way of working. I can’t see fifteen to twenty patients in four hours,” he said. “I like to spend time with my patients.”

“I don’t know what to do about that. I am not in a position of authority anymore. I am leaving myself. But I can definitely try to help get you involved in teaching the students. We’ll have to talk to the university leadership about that.”

“I don’t even know who that would be,” he said.

“Look, let’s get an appointment for you with the university leadership.” I walked with him downstairs to the medical education office, where he made an appointment for that Friday. I found out later they did have the meeting and that it went okay.

[To be continued…]


Why This Story Now?

This week on September 17 is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. I hope to help shine a light on this epidemic that now exists within a pandemic, and a stark “second wave” season ahead fighting COVID-19.

Each day this week I am posting an excerpt from Chapter 16, “The Good Physician” from my recent book, Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being. This chapter is the story of losing my good friend and colleague to his death by suicide and how it fueled my inner fire to co-create a culture of well-being at my institution and to help establish the Lifebridge Program with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society to encourage physicians to reach out before they are in a crisis.

Urge Congress: Please Support Mental Health Resources and Protections for COVID-19 Health Care Professionals

In April 2020, Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency physician, died by suicide. She is not the only one, not by far. Her family has established the Lorna Breen Foundation and has partnered with CORD and other organizations to present a bill to the U.S. Congress, the “Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act.” Learn more and share this link to urge Congress to support this initiative: https://p2a.co/H1ocr0N

If you are having thoughts of suicide or self harm, please call a friend or a loved one, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741.

In Chattanooga, TN, call the confidential LifeBridge LINE: 423-591-9830.