Physicians Like Me Are Suffering Burnout As Never Before
At the beginning of the Omicron surge, I was on a zoom call with my close friend, a co-resident at my psychiatry program in New York City. She arrived breathless to our meeting and said, “it’s happening again.” Just then, a text flashed across my computer screen: a friend, canceling the gathering she’d planned for the next day. We looked at each other and said nothing.
Almost two years ago, in April of 2020, we worked on a COVID ward together during the peak of the first New York surge. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation, and so everyone from surgeons to psychiatrists had to help fight the rising tide of new cases. My friend quickly contracted her own severe case of the virus. I imagined her alone at home, anxiously sticking her finger into a pulse oximeter and hoping her numbers wouldn’t plummet.
Prior to going to the COVID wards myself, I worried that I too might fall victim to a disease which at that point remained largely a mystery. Searching for things I could control, I would go for long runs in a mask, hoping that I could somehow train my lungs to beat COVID. By the time my friend recovered and returned to work, I was also on the wards. We would search every day for spaces to eat lunch together, and we’d speak of everything and nothing. It was often too difficult to talk about our days.
After I left the COVID units, I returned to my specialty, psychiatry, expecting things to become easier. Although my hours improved, I found myself faced with a new challenge — the burgeoning mental health crisis that has followed the first COVID-19 surge. In October 2021, a national emergency was declared for child and adolescent mental health, with numbers of mental health disorders spiking, and psychiatric services stretched thin. I spent half of last year working in the Bronx where many of my patients had been personally affected by the virus—had lost loved ones, or were struggling with food insecurity after leaving jobs, or were simply battling the severe and prolonged loneliness of the ongoing pandemic. And that was before COVID reared its head again with the Delta and Omicron variants.
This fall, the pandemic became even more personal to me. My mother, who is in her late 60s, called me with a positive test. She was fully vaccinated, but I could hear her voice was weaker than usual. She told me her chest was heavy, and all I could think of was the patients I had seen fighting to breathe. I put on the N95 mask that I keep in the back of my closet with a shield that an acquaintance had 3D-printed for me in Brooklyn in 2020. My mother and I walked to the same emergency room where I see psychiatric patients.