Reframing Tragedy with Gratitude and Action

Honoring My Colleague on National Physician Suicide Awareness Day

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Sept. 17 is the fourth-annual National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. The day is dedicated to honoring the memory of colleagues who have died by suicide and to continue to raise awareness and discussion on how to prevent it. Through this, we hope that we will lessen the stigma for physicians and all other clinicians to speak about their struggles either privately or openly - and seek help. See more resources at the new website

The morning of November 15, 2015, remains vivid in my mind. On this fateful day, I walked through the tunnel joining our office building to the parking lot and discovered the limp, lifeless form of my friend and colleague who died by suicide. 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. Ever since, I have wrestled with the meaning and value of our work, our lives, and our calling as physicians.

A feeling of sadness lingers, losing a dear friend to death by suicide, the most tragic event as a consequence of emotional exhaustion. I feel anger and frustration about how much still needs to be done within health care to address this epidemic.

However the memory also sparks different emotions, gratitude being an overpowering one. Gratitude for the opportunity to have had the friendship of a wonderful human being, gratitude for his life, and legacy of always being of service to others. A smile lights up my face as I remember our interactions, the time spent together in a doctor-patient relationship, and also as a friend where we discussed our families, kids, or his passion for orchids and golf.  I feel gratitude for his wonderful family to allow his story to be shared and be the impetus for the LifeBridge program.

Reframing and intentionally seeking some silver lining despite tragedy is a common way that I cope. I turn to gratitude for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and its CEO, Ms. Rae Bond, for believing and trusting in an idea. Soon after I found my dear friend’s body, I approached her in desperation and hope with a very naïve and rough proposal. I knew deep in my being that something needed to be done.

We physicians and healthcare professionals needed a space that felt safe, where we could be ourselves and take off all our masks. We needed the opportunity to be able to share our concerns and fears, even mental and behavioral issues, without fear. Without the fear of big brother or big sister watching, without the fear of retribution, without the fear of losing our job or license. I had tried to seek and create such spaces within our own organization, however there still existed fear and distrust.

I had always considered the Medical Society as a safe haven for me, and I knew many of my colleagues felt similarly. We often referred to it as the Switzerland of our community, thanks to the leadership. And thanks to them, the LifeBridge program was established less than a year later.

Personally, my involvement in LifeBridge gave me meaning, a sense of joy and connection that resonated with my purpose. I felt energized in a way that sparked my creativity, giving me the motivation to continue. I found myself more relaxed, listening with care and awareness, enjoying my walks and feeling well rested after a night’s sleep. 

How I wish I can say that LifeBridge was the sole solution to address the problem of our fatigue, stress and burnout. It is invaluable, and yet there is more to do.

Tenet #4 of the Oath to Self-Care and Well-Being reads: We WILL COMMIT to integration and balance in our professional and personal life and seek help when we feel we ourselves or our peers are overburdened, fatigued, or less compassionate.

#REFLECT:What would help you feel comfortable seeking support from a program such as LifeBridge? What would it take to reach out to a peer if you sensed their need?

As 2021 continues to unfold, how do you tend to self-care, community and resilience? I will continue posting reflections on these themes and invite you to join in the conversation here or on Twitter or Instagram with your thoughts or what you are doing for self-care and care of others. My book explores such ideas too: Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being.