Grief, Chaos, and COVID: How Medical Trainees Can Cope

Jillian Horton, MD, FRCPC


April 18, 2020

Remember the Mission

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing an astronaut and a general, seeking their counsel on behalf of our profession at this brutally difficult time. Both have talked about the importance of answering this question: "What is the mission?"

Sometimes, when we encounter unexpected or overwhelming difficulty, we rage or bargain. We are heartsick and terrified at what is happening to our friends, patients, and colleagues. We tell ourselves that this isn't what we signed up for. We are afraid. We don't want to die.

This doesn't mean you're an imposter. It means you are human. Instead of asking whether this is what you signed up for, look at the efforts of the people who are doing the job you signed up for around the world. You will see role that is even more meaningful and impactful than you ever thought possible.

I hope that you also feel something else when you look at the phenomenal efforts of health care providers: pride. I am loath to glorify the achievements of our colleagues in spots where they are working under unacceptably difficult conditions, especially without PPE, which is a failing of society to protect its health care providers. What I am willing to glorify is their commitment to a mission and their willingness to serve and care for each other, even in the face of fear.

We have a mission. We are witnessing in real time the reason so many before us have chosen this profession. We are seeing its higher, greater purpose on a scale we never imagined we would see in our lifetime.

The weeks and months ahead will challenge and test us in ways we hoped we would never be tested. We will face grief, chaos, and anger. Hopefully, we also feel closer to our teachers, our friends, and our colleagues than we have ever felt before.

For me, SARS now feels like a dress rehearsal for a test on a different scale. It taught me that periods of great distress and stress do ultimately pass. We will undoubtedly emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with knowledge, purpose, and resolve. It is okay to mourn the life we knew, and we must mourn those whose lives are lost. But when the mourning ends, a new life will begin.

Jillian Horton, MD, FRCPC, is associate head of the Department of Internal Medicine, director of the Alan Klass Program in Health and Humanities, and a former associate dean of undergraduate student affairs at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. She was recently named as the recipient of the 2020 Humanism Award from the Gold Foundation Canada and the Association of Faculties of Medicine Canada. Her memoir about medicine and medical education will be released by Harper Collins Canada in February 2021.

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