The pursuit of life and the reverence of death are daily practices in my career as a fellow physician in pediatric critical care medicine at Columbia’s Children’s Hospital. My body is constantly electrified with the joy of saving a child’s life, and the grief of providing comfort as one passes away.
This electricity builds; circulating through my neural network in ways that few can understand. The most common question I am posited is “Isn’t it hard? Why do you do it?” I was called to it.
Through medical school and residency I was drawn to the extreme – in chaos I found calm. More so, imagine spending an hour with a child who knows they are sick, who knows they may die. The maturity they embody coupled with the innocence of an unblemished soul is breathtaking.
To be welcomed into those precious moments of a family’s life – whether in celebrating life or honoring death – drives me.
However, this electricity has proven dangerous. 10%-12% of physicians pursue addictive substances (Hughes et al, JAMA 1992), 300-400 physician’s deaths per year are suicide (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), depression rates are more than 27-30% (Miller et al, South Med J 2000), and divorce rates 10-20% higher than the general population (Miller et al, South Med J 2000). The electricity caused three residents to jump from their high rise buildings in New York City this past year.
Our greatest asset in time of emergency, this constant charge has the capacity to serve as our greatest downfall. Frequent exercise, quality time with friends and family, and even purchasing a pet bird were all vain attempts to deal with the stress of being a physician. Through gentle nudging from my significant other, I began to take yoga classes; he believed it would give me the electrical discharge I needed, for both my body and my mind. Rather than building the energy and releasing it in quick bursts, I found a gradual, but enduring relief from the internal chaos. I just wanted a break, but what I received was liberation.
Today, I process rather than purge the experiences that accompany each day in the ICU. I am present, for myself and for my patients. My loved ones do not have to fear my extreme explosions of emotion. Currently pursuing a 500-hour certification, now I have the privilege of bringing the practice to work.
Through a meditation practice, recommended to me by a close friend and nursing colleague, I met Elena Brower. After her guided meditation, I garnered the courage to ask her how to manage the challenges of distraction and frustration that often accompany my meditation practice.
“Those meditations that are most difficult for you are the most rewarding. All of the emotions and thoughts that bubble up are finally given a path to release so they can no longer trouble you.” I explained my job and the daily challenges faced by nurses and doctors. As tears streamed down her face, she offered herself to the pediatric intensive care unit, for meditation and yoga for my colleagues who undoubtedly strive for a similar respite in their day.
Elena began leading meditations for the staff, and arranged for Manduka to donate mats and yoga props with which the staff could practice. This has evolved into an entirely different practice at the Columbia’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
“Physician, heal Thyself.”