How doctors can handle their own ailments

October 1, 2018
Linda Girgis, MD

Doctors are human and face all the same illnesses, injuries, and disasters that everyone else does. 

Editor’s Note: Physicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for professionals to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The opinions are that of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Physicians Practice or UBM.

Patients often express that doctors don’t seem to understand their pain and what they are going through. But, doctors are human, and we face all the same illnesses, injuries, and disasters that everyone else does. It is often harder for us because we know we have so many sick patients depending on us to be functioning. Most doctors work even when sick. Yet, there are times when we truly can no longer function and need to take a period of disability.

I’ve always been one of those doctors who worked with the flu or returned to work the day after knee surgery, still in pain. I never thought I would be unable to work for any reason. Yet, I went from a practicing physician with an over-full practice to temporary disabled in a matter of seconds. Taking my dog for a walk, she took off after a squirrel, dragging me to the point that I fell and fractured my shoulder. I ended up hospitalized for three days with intractable pain and vomiting (caused by the pain medications) and underwent surgery to help the broken bone fragments heal. I now sport a steel plate and ten screws in my proximal humerus. With my fracture, I was immobile for four weeks. In fact, I couldn’t even make it upstairs to my bed and spent it on the couch. 

I learned many lessons on my journey into temporary disability:

  • As a doctor, be careful how you talk to patients. Since I was admitted to a hospital with an orthopedics residency program, the residents spoke with me the most. First, I was told that my fracture was borderline for needing surgery. Then, I was told it needed surgery. I received a great deal of conflicting information, which just worsened my distress. A clear plan would have eased me more than any of the pain medications they were pumping into me.
  • It’s easier to be a doctor than a patient. I was admitted to the orthopedics unit and I could hear patients moaning all night in pain. It was truly horrifying. If anyone told me of that experience, I would not realize how bad it was without living through it. 
  • Ask questions. People try to assume you know more than you do because you’re a doctor. I learned more about proximal humeral fractures in a few days than I ever learned in my previous training. 
  • Sometimes you need to be quiet and just listen. I did not want surgery. But, only after listening to the orthopedist, I knew my shoulder would not heal well without. 
  • Be prepared. Purchase a disability policy for times like these. Unfortunately, I did not read my own policy well. My benefits only kick in if I’ve been disabled for 90 consecutive days and I only needed to be out of work for 30. So, I went a month with no income and being in private practice, I still had to pay all my practice expenses.
  • Tell others how to help you. Many people want to help, but they often don’t know how. For example, many people tried to help me get up by supporting me under the injured arm. This caused excruciating pain, so I learned to tell them to go to the other side.
  • Don’t blame yourself. I admit I’m still struggling with this one. If only I didn’t take my dogs for a walk when I was tired, I keep telling myself. But, there is no going back. Nothing will change it.

Being struck with a sudden illness or injury is quite devastating. While I know it will only last a few months, those few months are quite grievous. When others are struck down, we need to remember how hard the struggle is and support them, especially our colleagues in medicine who trained to always be there in health and in sickness.