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Updated 25 March 2015

When a doctor loses a patient

A picture of an upset doctor after losing one of his patients is going viral. Have you ever considered just how a doctor experiences loss?

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Preserving life and fighting death is part of a doctor’s job, but occasionally losing a patient is inevitable. Contrary to the common belief that doctors grow accustomed to death because they face it so often, losing a patient hits hard, and definitely does have an effect on a doctor’s life.

Seeing the picture (originally posted on Reddit) of the doctor crouched in sorrow, holding onto a low wall as he mourns not being able to save a 19-year-old patient reminded me of my own inner struggles when faced with dying patients.

I remember the first time I lost a patient. An elderly lady suffered a stroke at home. On arrival at the hospital she was already comatose and we had very little history to work with.

When called to attend to a “red” patient (critically ill patients are called “red patients”) you try to mentally prepare yourself for the worst possible case scenario. Often, though, it is unlike anything you prepared yourself for, and all it boils down to is saving a life.  

Even though I knew – judging by her vital signs – that we would most probably not be able to save her, we did our utmost, hoping that by some miracle we’d help her pull through.  

When she died after only a few minutes of attempted resuscitation, the first thing I felt was a sense of failure because I was unable to save her life. I started to question my abilities and skills: “Am I a failure as a doctor?” and  “Did I do everything I was trained to do to save a life?”

For some reason, when I dealt with dying patients, it felt as if I had a special connection with them  – almost as though I was the only link the patient still had to the world of the living.

It felt as if I was communicating with the patient via monitors and blood tests, that the patient was trying to tell me what to look out for through their blood results and ECG tracings. When, despite looking at all the clues, the patient dies, it feels as if you failed them.

At medical school we were often told never to get personally involved with patients. Although I do agree with this in principle, it's hard not become overwhelmed or upset when you fail in your single purpose: to save lives. 

So often, in medicine, we have to put our feelings and emotions in a box, lock it and throw the key away. I believe at some point in our careers that box just becomes too full, and then, in a single moment all of it will come crashing down  – like happened to the doctor depicted in the picture below.

Image: "An ER doctor steps outside after losing a 19-year old patient." Credit: Reddit/ NickMoore911 (Imgur)

Nick Moore, an EMT told Myfox8 that a fellow EMT took the photo and that he received permission to post the photo on Reddit, which has received over 3 500 comments. He wanted to share it publicly because he believes it sheds light on what it’s like to be in a life-and-death profession. He didn't give any details of who the doctor was, or what hospital it happened at. 

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One often gets the idea while being trained at medical school that there is no place for "softies" in the medical profession. You sink or you swim. I believe there is a fine line between being professional and doing your job, and losing humanity by not allowing yourself to be human.

I can clearly understand why this picture has gone viral. Doctors are generally perceived as always being in control of a situation. To the public this photo gives a glimpse into what the medical fraternity would describe as "personal".

I believe professional behaviour should at all times be maintained, but maybe this picture may change the general perception that doctors are career driven, academic-minded, inspired-by-money-machines with no feelings.

Maybe if you look at the picture, keep in mind that there is much more to this picture than an upset doctor. This picture is a summary of a career that takes you by surprise when you least expect it.

Read more:

Dying patients often feel abandoned by their doctors
The top 5 regrets of dying people
If today was your last day
What happens when you die



    
    
    

Dr. Owen J. Wiese is Health24's resident doctor. After graduating from Stellenbosch University with additional qualifications in biochemistry and physiology he developed a keen interest in providing medical information through the media.

 
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