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The Beauty and the Anguish of Working in Healthcare

It was a Saturday night, and my boyfriend, Andrew, and I were at a wedding. We sat at a table with people we didn’t know at all. I introduced myself to the young guy in front of me — “Hi, my name is Michelle, what’s your name?” He responded, “Lit.” “Excuse me?” I said — there’s no way I heard him correctly. He said, “My name is Lit because after this drink the bartender just poured me, I’m going to be lit as fuck.” So for all intents and purposes of this story, the guy’s name is Lit.

Lit, Andrew, and I started talking about what we did for a living. Andrew is an emergency room pharmacist. I’m a (psycho)therapist. And Lit works for Best Buy installing home entertainment systems. He went on to tell us a story about a time his friend had an asthma attack and needed to go to the hospital. Lit took him, and he started wandering the halls of the ER. Through one of the corridors, he saw a man undergoing cardiac arrest — nurses and doctors were surrounding him, trying to pump life back into him. Until they stopped. Called time of death. And began moving onto their next patient. Lit shared that he had never seen anyone die before, and he told us he couldn’t imagine what it was like for us to see people at their sickest and at their worst. He said, “I see people at their fucking happiest. They’re getting new shit! They’re so excited when I roll up at their house.”

And Lit really put into perspective exactly what us healthcare professionals witness. Every. Single. Day. And maybe we don’t realize it or honor it enough. But let’s reflect on it now. People don’t land in our exam room or on our couch when everything is going great. We see people when they’re at their sickest. When they’re in the most pain. When they’re about to die. When they get a terminal diagnosis. After they just tried to commit suicide. After they just got a divorce, or have been suffering panic attacks, or couldn’t take the PTSD symptoms from their trauma anymore. We see the worst parts of the human experience. Because there is no human experience that doesn’t come without pain and suffering at some point in life. Healthcare professionals can become burnt out and jaded from the shit we witness every day — just another cardiac arrest, just another diagnosis, just another horrific trauma like so many others I’ve seen. But one of the beautiful parts of our jobs is the amount of empathy and compassion we have for others. Because we know the dark parts of people’s pains, when we witness someone huffing and puffing on line at the grocery store, our first thought isn’t, “what an impatient asshole.” Our first thought is, “What kind of pain is this person going through that they can’t even stand in line at the store?” When someone cuts us off on the parkway or is driving like a general douchebag, we don’t think — “Wow, what an ass hat for driving like that.” We think, “Maybe this person has colitis and really has to go to the bathroom,” or, “what kind of pain is this person going through that they’re taking it out on the road?” People aren’t assholes for no reason. Hurt people hurt people. Does it excuse their behavior? Absolutely not — unless you really do have to go to the bathroom, then by all means, please cut me off. But it provides an explanation — and sometimes all people really need is a little compassion, understanding, and validation that what they’re going through is really shitty. Maybe permission to say, “wow, you’re in that much pain every day? That really sucks,” or, “You just finalized your divorce and you’re alone now? I can’t imagine what that’s like.”

And yet, I have to honor that we also see the best parts of being human. After you and your staff have been doing CPR, and you finally get a pulse back. When you can tell your patient that their scans are clear of cancer. When the medications and treatments are working and your patient is feeling better. When they’re not in pain anymore. When they start to find themselves again after being lost. When they’ve gone a whole week without having a panic attack. When their triggers aren’t triggers anymore. When they’re able to find joy in what they used to find joy in again. These are the moments that remind us why we do what we do.

Never underestimate or take for granted what we are able to witness on a daily basis. Our jobs don’t exclusively define who we are, but they have given us the opportunity to witness the entire spectrum of being human — something that most people don’t get to see. And if you need a break from that emotional roller coaster, take time off. It’s okay for us to get help. After all, we are only human, too.

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