There is no chapter in medical school textbooks that prepares students for delivering bad news or coping with death. Thus, it’s not a surprise that experiencing the death of a patient for the first time can be a very emotionally charged event in the lives of medical students. It can usher in a variety of emotions ranging anywhere from fear, to numbness, to anger, and even to guilt.
Medical students often form really close bonds with the patients that they oversee. Thus, it can be a hard when a patient that they have gotten to know over the past few days and even weeks, passes away. In these circumstances it is common for med students and even physicians to have feelings of grief and loss over the patient’s passing. They might feel that they could have done more and that they have failed as a result.
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Dr. Danielle Saunders Walsh M.D., a pediatric surgeon at the Brody School of Medicine, found herself in a similar situation wondering whether a life in surgery was right for her after one of her patients suddenly died on the operating table. For Dr. Walsh, it was her interaction with the patient’s family that helped her cope with her feelings of doubt and continue in her chosen field. For others, it can be the act of sharing their feelings, either with their family or friends, that can bring in the much needed relief.
In the medical field, there is often an assumption that caring too deeply for one’s patients can represent an unhealthy dependence. However, acknowledging the pain of a loss is often healthier than trying to remain objective. Sharing our feelings can be difficult but it allows us to become more aware of our needs, and also that of our patients, whereas detaching ourselves can easily lead to burnout. It is important to realize that every med student and physician goes through the exact same experience of losing a beloved patient, and that sometimes sharing our feelings with our fellow students and colleagues can bring a great sense of comfort.
Feature Image Source: Medicine (oversaturated remix) by herval