Voices: Putting Your Oxygen Mask on First | Diana Cholakian Pearre, MD
While feeling nostalgic about air travel, I wondered how often passengers in an actual emergency heed the orders of flight attendants to place the oxygen mask on themselves before their young kids. While little to no data exists documenting how often parents place oxygen masks on their traveling toddlers, my personal experience as a parent suggests that I would attempt to place an oxygen mask on my little one before placing one on myself. Medicine is fraught with airline analogies, and I liken this current COVID-19 pandemic to a depressurized cabin, exposing vulnerabilities in ourselves and the systems in which we work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all to varying degrees. We have discussed goals of care with patients alone in rooms devoid of families, adding another dimension of difficulty to an already demanding profession. Losing patients, despite the most aggressive cancer care, not to a gynecologic malignancy but to a virus, has undoubtedly affected me as a physician. It is still hard to wash off the emotional toll the pandemic has had on us, our colleagues and our patients.
In medicine, we have always been taught to put patients first. It was not until this pandemic that I realized that putting patients first does not mean putting myself second. Although the key stressors we, as physicians, have been facing in the last few months vary, they undeniably have exposed our humanness. Healthcare workers throughout the world have experienced symptoms of burnout, anxiety, insomnia, and depression related to COVID-19 (1). I realized that acknowledging burnout in myself did not signal defeat. It re-centered my focus on my priorities. Furthermore, it made me better able to recognize signs and symptoms of burnout in my colleagues and residents. Sometimes the calls for help were not as explicit as the flashing lights above our seats on a plane. Wellness curriculums provided us with the groundwork to be able to discuss these matters in a way that was open, comforting and relatively free of judgement (2).
Ultimately, choosing to prioritize wellness not only helps us but also our patients and teams. Attending physician wellness trickles down to fellows and residents and teaches our medical students that self-care equates to better patient care. It ultimately requires us to find role models, seek growth, ask for support, learn how to fail with finesse, and speak up for ourselves and our patients.
- Lai J, Ma S, Wang Y, et al. Factors Associated With Mental Health Outcomes Among Health Care Workers Exposed to Coronavirus Disease 2019. JAMA Network Open. 2020;3(3):e203976-e203976.
- Turner TB, Kushner DM, Winkel AF, et al. The Society of Gynecologic Oncology wellness curriculum pilot: A groundbreaking initiative for fellowship training. Gynecologic Oncology. 2020;156(3):710-714.
Diana Cholakian Pearre, MD, is a Gynecologic Oncology Fellow at the University of California, Irvine in Orange, CA.