Lessons Learned from My Doctor-Patients

A doctor writes on his experiences in treating colleagues in his psychiatry practice, and the humility he's gained from it.

As a specialist in physician health, I have gained an enormous amount from a long career of looking after medical colleagues. One of the lessons has been humility. What follows is adapted from my new book Becoming a Doctors’ Doctor: A Memoir.

“I have never entirely escaped the view that being a doctor is something of a moral luxury, by which doctors are easily corrupted. We can so easily end up complacent and self-important, feeling ourselves to be more important than our patients.”

Henry Marsh, Life as a Brain Surgeon (New York: Picador/Macmillan, 2018) 31.

My doctor-patients have taught me humility. Many of them are complex, and they’ve challenged my competency and skills. Some have fired me. Some have threatened to sue or report me to the medical licensing board. Some have taken their lives. With this comes infinite soul searching, and a degree of professional modesty, an acceptance of my limitations. It’s become easier to say: “I don’t know.” And to see my mistakes, to sit with them, and to apologize. One psychiatrist put it crisply: “One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies.”

Aaron Lazare, On Apology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 1.

I do not believe that these realizations or insights into myself are unique to those who treat physicians. They are the trajectory of all clinicians as the years of practice lengthen. No way of proving it, but I would argue that treating physicians has hastened or enhanced a particular kind of humbleness in me. And this has served me well, not just for personal gain, but for my professional growth.

Many of my doctor-patients have mirrored humility in my office, and I have tried hard to capture and emulate their posture. How can you not when you are present at their diminishment, vulnerability, simple humanness, and rawness in their hour of need? Many have been brought to their knees by their battles with alcohol or depression, ugly divorces, dismissal from their jobs, or suspension of their medical license. As they make progress, begin to feel better, understand themselves in more depth and reach a healthy stage of pondering and expansive thinking, some utter statements like this: “I think there’s a silver lining to this nightmare. It’s changed me. I’m a nicer person. Kinder.” I’ve been tempted to blurt out “me too,” but I don’t.

Here’s an example:

Dr. Norris, a radiologist, came to see me in the throes of leaving her husband, a transplant surgeon. Her children were now on their own and she finally felt emancipated, free to extract herself from a stifling, abusive marriage. She did well for the first six months or so, but she developed a recurrence of a depression that she experienced years earlier after the birth of her second child. She fell fast, nearly attempted suicide, and I had to hospitalize her. But she prevailed, responded nicely to treatment, and was safe to leave after three weeks. I looked after her for about five years.

I want to highlight here what kind of a person she was. Highly accomplished, Dr. Norris headed her department, one of the few women chairs at that time. This came with an international reputation in her field, and accolades and national awards outside of medicine for her pioneering role modeling for women’s achievement. We worked at the same medical center, where she was a household name. When I needed to hospitalize her, I planned to have a colleague look after her at another hospital, respecting her privacy. She would have none of it. She insisted on being treated where we both worked. She allayed any awkwardness in the nursing staff, or anxiety in the medical students or residents, by just being her authentic self. She never pulled rank, and all of the trainees involved in her care marveled at her disposition. She was warm and expressive and full of gratitude for all we did for her.

Dr. Norris’s humility was a gift to me, and one that extended beyond myself. Just after I signed her release and she left the ward to go home, both the medical student and psychiatry resident who assisted me in her care talked about the impression she made on them. They admired what kind of patient she had been—very ill, but not embarrassed to be a doctor-patient on a mental health service. How she bore her illness with fortitude, dignity, and grace. How kind she was toward them. And should they ever be admitted to a psychiatric unit themselves, that remembering her might make the experience of it less burdensome for them.

Excerpted with permission from BECOMING A DOCTORS’ DOCTOR by Michael F. Myers, MD. © 2020. All rights reserved.

Dr. Michael F. Myers, author of Becoming a Doctor's Doctor, is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and recent past Vice-Chair of Education and Director of Training in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at SUNY-Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn.

He is the author or co-author of eight other books, including Why Physicians Die By Suicide, The Handbook of Physician Health and Doctors’ Marriages.

The views expressed in the article represent those of the author, not necessarily those of the publication.

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