I love my work, but, to be honest, being a psychologist is not all butterflies and rainbows. I have had to deal with many challenging people and difficult and emotional situations, Abuse is traumatic for the client and its disclosure can be traumatic for the therapist too. My clients have survived tremendous adversity.
Often, I’ve been the bearer of bad news. Parents can be devastated to find out their child is learning disabled, or has an autism spectrum disorder, or may not become an astrophysicist. For years, I informed parents I believed their children, whom Children’s Services had removed from their care, should not be returned to them. I lost a lot of sleep questioning my own judgement.
Years of this type of work are wearying even for a competent clinician. I don’t often consider the positive side of having cancer, but I can thank my leukemia for potentially preventing occupational burnout. My work doesn’t compare to that of a physician, however. I may have said things that affected the rest of my client’s lives, but I’ve rarely dealt with life-and-death situations.
I can’t imagine informing a patient that she has cancer. That’s what that smart hematologist-on-call told me four years ago. (Happy Cancerversary to me, by the way!) The ER doctor called Dr. Diagnosis for a consultation because of my blood disorder (polycythemia). Dr. D. reviewed my past blood work, spotted some anomalies, and suggested further testing.
I can remember exactly when she told me she thought I had leukemia. After spending a long day in the ER, I was transferred to a hospital bed, so J. had just gone home. I was alone, overwhelmed, and overtired when Dr. D. came in to give me the news. Needless to say, I was beside myself. What did she know? Had she consulted my hematologist, whose care I’d been under for 12 years? Somehow she kept calm in the midst of my meltdown.
J. and I talked with this know-it-all together the following day. J. was as perplexed as I was. We challenged her and confronted her and she stayed calm. In the midst of our uproar, she told us that the diagnosis was a good thing, that she caught the illness early, and that there were wonder drugs that could stop CML in its tracks. That was the good news, and eventually we stopped fighting with her.
By the end of the week, J. and I had realized this doc had probably saved my life. Then, even though we had just met and I had caused her a full week of confrontational grief, Dr. D. facilitated my transfer from my old hematologist, whom I no longer trusted, to Wonder Woman, a.k.a., Dr. Blood.
So I don’t envy these doctors, and I couldn’t do their job. How do they describe their day over dinner? “Saved a patient’s life today, honey.” How do they manage when a patient they’ve cared for and cared about dies? Do they ever fret, or lose sleep, over their decisions? They must. If they need to maintain professional distance to survive the emotional onslaught, so be it.
Thanks docs. I wouldn’t be here today without that level of care, and caring.