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How Do Surgeons Deal with Death?

Routinely seeing patients die is a reality that surgeons experience and endure, whether from a chronic illness, a fatal accident, or a complication during a surgical operation.

Surgeons train to extend and save lives, but they can never control whether their patients will, indeed, live or not.

Because of this, surgeons are devastated in seeing their patients pass away, especially if it happened in their hands during a procedure.

Worse, surgeons usually are not prepared for this tragedy—they do not openly talk about their emotions when this happens. Most hospitals also do not offer a counseling or psychological first aid program to surgeons in such situations.

Surgeons instead rely on their values, the context of the patients’ death, the training they received, and their resilience to cope.

How do surgeons deal with the death of their patients? You will learn the answer as published by the American College of Surgeons and the Association for Academic Surgery.

Understanding the background of the patient’s death

It is easy to say that surgeons (and all physicians, for that matter) should get used to seeing people die. After all, dealing with life means accepting its loss too.

But surgeons are also people—they grieve and feel pain for their patients and their loved ones. Despite this, surgeons need to control their emotions from being overwhelmed.

Understanding how and why the patient died is an effective way to do this. When their surgical patient passes away, surgeons strive to focus on the conditions that led to the patient’s death.

But if an accident victim (whom the surgeon does not know) is rushed to the hospital and dies there, the surgeon may feel sorrow, but this may not have the same emotional impact.

Surgeons are most affected if the patient unexpectedly died during the operation. To avoid depression and remorse from consuming them, surgeons strive to learn from this tragedy and still appreciate their careers.

After all, surgeons can never control the lives of all the patients they treat, no matter how excellent they are—but they can save lives most of the time.

Properly reflecting

When a patient dies, the surgeon needs to choose how to respond psychologically. They can either dwell in pain or reflect accordingly.

During mourning, surgeons can remember how they positively interacted with the patients when they were still alive.

They can also strive to remove their guilt of failure. To do this, surgeons can research the complications and circumstances and help the community. Their experiences, whether they are successful or not, can help them progress in their careers as well.

Furthermore, while they grieve, surgeons also recognize that they must treat their patients. But they must also support their families when the unfortunate tragedy comes.

Yes, death may be a part of life and medical practice. But as they do their best for the patient and their loved ones, surgeons know that they also fulfilled a part of their obligation.

Asking for the support of their senior surgeons, family, and friends

Senior surgeons have seen many patients die during the decades they spent in practice. They can share their experiences to comfort their fellow grieving surgeons and help them cope.

Their family and friends can also offer support. Surgeons may talk to them about their mourning. Most of the time, their loved ones can remind them why they entered the surgical field and reassure them.

Supporting one another in the surgical team

Whether a patient is alive or not after the procedure, the surgical team meets to review the case.

If the patient passed away because of complications, the team provides comfort and empathy. They can also discuss what they can learn from the surgery and improve and recover from the loss.

Surgeons can also give advice or express condolences to colleagues who lost a patient. This kind gesture can profoundly help them.

Reading research

Aside from personal contacts, colleagues, and loved ones, research about coping after patients’ death can also guide surgeons in dealing with death.

Online publications like the Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, the National Library of Medicine, and Science Daily offer articles by experienced surgeons and researchers about patient loss.

Being kind to the patients’ family

Losing a loved one gives intense emotional pain to the patient’s family. The surgeon who operated on the patient may find closure and serenity by sharing in the family’s mourning.

If the surgeon has been close to the patient and his family, the grieving loved ones will appreciate that the surgeon attended the funeral.

It is alright to cry with a mourning family. Sobbing with the family may make the surgeon vulnerable, but it shows that the surgeon cares and sympathizes with their loss.

The surgeon may also write a letter of condolences to the family, expressing his loss and grief. Through such a letter, the surgeon may commemorate the patient’s qualities and provide his contact information if they want to stay in touch.

Staying in touch with the patients’ families can also help the surgeon and the loved ones left behind recover and cope.

Having profound conversations with families help surgeons regain their confidence and purpose as they practice.

Asking for professional help

If the surgeon struggles to cope with the loss that he feels, he may seek the assistance of mental health professionals.

Surgeons may visit a bereavement specialist, psychologist, or a counselor to confide in their emotional pain and sense of loss.

Continuing their surgical practice

Ultimately, returning to the hospital to perform their duty as surgeons is the best coping mechanism that they can do.

In the bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, Dr. Danielle Walsh shared her coping strategy. As an associate medical school professor and a pediatric surgeon for a decade, she said that taking care of other patients helps her control grief from loss.

After all, surgeons cannot be held captive by their sadness. They have to set aside the pain to help other surgical patients with all their might and energy.

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