Sorry, Your Doctor “Died Suddenly”

I live in a sweet little town in Oregon–with snow-capped mountains, farmers’ markets, and the friendliest people around.

But a few weeks ago, one of our beloved pediatricians shot himself in the head in a public park. Earlier this year, one of our surgeons was found dead in his car from carbon monoxide poisoning. And just before him, a urologist shot himself in the head in his backyard. Before him, a local anesthesiologist was found dead of an overdose in a hospital closet and a family physician walked in front of a train.

What does it mean when our healers take their own lives?

And why aren’t more people talking about physician suicide?

Maybe the real problem is we can’t say the word suicide. Newspapers don’t like to print the word suicide, unless the family mentions it in the obituary. In fact, when I do a Google search for the names of physicians who have committed suicide, I find no mention of the word “suicide.” When I Google “Oregon physician suicide,” I find links on physician-assisted suicide. And I guess this is the ultimate act of physician-assisted suicide. But not the kind anyone would approve of.

Doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession. In the United States, we lose a doctor a day to suicide. That’s two to three entire medical school classes per year. I dated two fellow medical students during my training. Both are dead. One—an internist in his early forties–was found in a hotel room with pain pills. My anatomy partner—a family physician in his thirties–“died suddenly.” I’ve never found out how. Or why.

We deserve to know why our doctors are dying, why the mental health of our healers deteriorates during training, why our young medical students have a high risk for burnout, depression, and suicide.

Since nobody likes to talk about suicide, I’ll start. In the fall of 2004, I was suicidal. I didn’t have a gun or a stockpile of pills, but I could have easily acquired both. Why was I suicidal? Situational depression. What was the situation?  My beloved profession had been stolen from me. How? By bureaucrats and middlemen who had inserted themselves between me and my patients and sucked the joy right out of my career.

Fortunately, rather than kill myself or continue to hold myself and my patients hostage in a dysfunctional medical system, I held town hall meetings where I invited citizens to design their ideal clinic. I collected 100 pages of testimony, adopted ninety percent of feedback, and opened our clinic one month later. In 2005, the people in my sweet little town in Oregon had created the first community-designed ideal clinic in America.

Now reporters fly here from all over the country to study our clinic with such happy patients and an unusually joyful doctor. Doctors don’t need to be victims of a health care system gone awry. Hundreds of physicians have opened ideal clinics nationwide. And more and more doctors are choosing to live–and love medicine.

Maybe if my dead colleagues could have experienced more joy in their careers, they wouldn’t be dead. We must investigate why our healers are harming themselves. But if all we are told is that another doctor “died suddenly,” then the conversation ends.

Pamela Wible, M.D., is an expert in physician suicide prevention. Doctors nationwide attend her biannual retreats. Dr. Wible teaches at medical schools and her recently released book, Pet Goats & Pap Smears, helps medical students and physicians recapture the joy of medicine.

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6 comments on “Sorry, Your Doctor “Died Suddenly”
  1. John McBurney says:

    Thanks for bringing this painful problem out into the light. Burn out now affects half of all physicians. The problem is complex but seems to begin early. Many medical students enter medical school depressed and the situation seems to progressively worsen through med school and residency. Now the impending collapse of our medical system places these gifted but wounded individuals in a bind in which there is no easy way out. Mindfulness meditation enhances non-judgemental awareness in the present moment and may contribute to enhanced emotional resiliency. Data from Georgetown University presented last week at the International Congress of Educators in Complementary and Integrative Medicine show that an 11 week mind-body medicine course in the first year of medical school prevents the dramatic decline in empathy during medical education.

    In lovingkindness meditation the first person that lovingkindness is extended to is oneself. It is difficult to love others unless you first love yourself.

    My hope is that interventions like the one at Georgetown will become widespread and will help, over time to stem this silent tragedy.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Yes John! We do need much more in the way of proactive mental health measures in medical training. I hope to get Pet Goats & Pap Smears into standard medical school curricula and taught in all undergraduate medical humanities courses. I am currently teaching a physician retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs to help ailing docs and med students. Would love to have more depressed/suicidal docs attend.

      Spread the word! Open national dialogue needed on this topic!


  2. Peggy Loflin says:

    Your article was most enlightening, and sad. I wish I could talk to the beautiful, brilliant people in the photographs…

    As a mother of an ill child with a complicated medical history, I have run into so many people in the medical fields who seem to have given up. More than once, I have had physicians tell me they ” didn’t learn this in medical school.” Maybe what they are telling me is they somehow survived medical school…and they can’t be expected to
    do too much more than that.

    It’s not all of them, but a lot. And this really helps me understand more of the inner workings – of the making of a physician.

    Thanks for the wonderful article.

  3. Peggy Loflin says:

    Thank you for your work.

  4. Latonya Sumlin says:

    Astonishing physician suicide is rarely discussed in the media. I was also under the impression that pediatricians do not experience burnout or suicidal thoughts because they work with children.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      When a child dies it hits a doctor really hard. Trust me. And those pediatric oncologist working with all the kids with cancer. With no debriefing for their trauma.

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