Perfectionism is deadly. How to heal from a medical mistake.

In memory of Kaitlyn Elkins, a “successful” medical student at the top of her class, who died by suicide due to perfectionism, loneliness & untreated depression.

I know several physicians who died by suicide due to minor medical mistakes. In their suicide notes they claim an inability to forgive themselves. I’ve met surgeons with “video libraries” in their head of every bad surgical outcome. Immersed in self-blame, they replay cases in their mind (for decades!).

Most mistakes are due to system failure (not individual error or malice). Lack of supervision and poor communication in a first-time experience is often the culprit. First experiences are always memorable and may haunt perfectionists who believe they are “unfit” as doctors fearing they may kill future patients. Mistakes result when feeling rushed with no time to ask questions of a trusted mentor. Many docs confide they’ve never had a trusted mentor in their career! Fear of asking questions leads to mistakes due to isolation in decision-making from a poor teaching environment. In life-or-death situations, one’s visceral sensations are heightened and stored in the body (sights, sounds, smells, feelings). If you suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts due to perfectionism and/or medical errors, here are my top 3 tips:

1) START JOURNALING – Write down all you recall about event (sounds, feelings, smells, colors and images, description of patient, including name or “code” name/initials). By writing everything down, you excise the trauma from your body and mind in what I call an “emotional incision & drainage” so you do not end up in “emotional sepsis” as I explain here.

2) SHARE YOUR STORY – Speak confidentially about the case among a group of physicians who are also healing from their own medical mistakes. If you do not have a peer support group, join us here.

3) RELEASE THROUGH RITUAL – Take your written story to a healing spot like the ocean, forest, or garden. Bury the story under a tree/rose bush or drop into ocean. Holding onto the painful event punishes both you—and the patient. Liberate your souls to heal by through prayer & physical ritual. Need help? Attend our retreat.

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