I remember a scene from my surgical career like it was yesterday. One of my patients—let’s call her Sally— invited her mother Joy to come to town and be there for the birth of her first child.
During the visit, Sally saw that Joy was often in pain. Sally brought Joy to see me, and I diagnosed a hernia. Sally encouraged Joy get the surgical repair in Seattle, so that Sally could take care of her as she recovered.
As I performed the operation, I saw that Joy’s belly was studded with small cancerous tumors. While I wished I had a magic wand that could make these tumors disappear, I knew that Joy’s life would be measured in weeks to months.
My guess is that you would like a magic wand to cure your kids' or patients' or partners' woes, with the full knowledge that we face a long recovery.
Here are some things I learned about responding to disappointing outcomes that might help you.
Remember that our current reality is not your fault. You did not create the COVID pandemic any more than I created Joy’s cancer.
Be humble. You are not gifted with superpowers to eliminate COVID-19 any more than I could take away Joy’s tumors.
Accept that disappointment is part of day-to-day COVID reality. Sometimes you or your friends or your patients will experience sadness about the losses we face. Sometimes it’s little things like going to a live ball game or throwing a child’s birthday party. Sometimes it's about big things. A business has failed or plans for retirement must be postponed.
Resist the urge to run away. It's hard to listen to someone say, "I'm disappointed." Your first impulse might be to fix it. If you cannot, you may want to run away.
Remember that others' disappointment does not mean you have failed.
Know you can make a positive difference even if you cannot fix things. Yes, people you know have pain. Most people can tolerate pain. What's intolerable is being alone in the pain; this is what leads to suffering. You can make a positive difference just by being there.
Reconsider how you measure whether you're doing a good job. Consider these metrics:
Being present with Joy and her family as they said no to chemotherapy and said yes to quality days was one of the toughest things I did in my career. And it was one of the most rewarding.
I hope that you can say the same thing in ten or twenty years as you look back on this challenging time.
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© 2020. Vicki Rackner MD is an author, speaker and consultant who offers a bridge between the world of medicine and the world of business. She helps businesses acquire physician clients, and she helps physicians run more successful practices. Contact her at (425) 451-3777.