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Formerly Today's Christian Doctor

Decreasing Isolation in Healthcare

Dr. Autumn Dawn Galbreath shares how Christians can find respite in community in this article published in the summer 2018 edition of Today's Christian Doctor.

by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA

As a physician, my day-to-day-to-day routine of caring for people sometimes feels overwhelming. At times, it is difficult to feel compassion for the needs of the patient sitting in front of me, particularly if the need for which they are seeking care seems smaller than a need I have at that particular time. For example, when I am sick, I find myself much less sympathetic to the sick person seeking my help. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking something like, “Well, I’m clearly a lot sicker than you and I’m here at work. What’s stopping you from doing the same thing?” I have to actively catch myself in these low-compassion moments and remind myself of the perspective I want to have toward my patient.

On a seemingly unrelated note, as a Christian, the day-to-day-to-day routine of loving others and supporting them in their needs sometimes feels overwhelming. At times, it is also difficult to feel compassion for the needs expressed by others, particularly if I am personally fighting a spiritual struggle. For example, when a prayer request is expressed in a Christian group (or on Facebook or in an email or…), sometimes I catch myself thinking something like, “Do you really need to publicize all your issues to everyone around you? I’m just handling things—can’t you do that, too?” Again, I have to actively catch myself in these low-compassion moments and remind myself of Christ’s perspective toward the needs of others.

The reactions I sometimes have in these situations—different contexts in which I am confronted by a person with a need—are evidence of compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion, both key components of what is often called burnout. In a seminal discussion of burnout in the early 1980s, the syndrome was defined as:

A syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity. Emotional exhaustion refers to feelings of being emotionally overextended and drained by one’s contact with other people. Depersonalization refers to an unfeeling and callous response toward these people, who are usually the recipients of one’s service or care. Reduced personal accomplishment refers to a decline in one’s feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work with people. 

It’s clear how this syndrome manifests itself in healthcare, with burned out, emotionally exhausted healthcare professionals struggling to find compassion toward the patients who seek their care, while ultimately feeling less successful in the pursuit of healthcare.

But it seems to me that Christians can experience these same symptoms in their personal relationships as they feel overwhelmed by the needs and prayer requests of those around them and begin to feel calloused toward those needs. In fact, I think a Christian can even feel “unsuccessful” in the Christian life. Haven’t you had moments when you wondered how God could use someone like you when you couldn’t even do X, Y or Z for a fellow Christian? It seems eerily similar to the professional burnout syndrome, doesn’t it?

What happens when these two roles—healthcare professional and Christ-follower—are joined in one person who wishes to follow Christ in and through their profession as a healer? This person typically strives to care for others in a deeper and more meaningful way than someone who shares either the profession or the faith might do. I do not believe Christian healthcare professionals are necessarily more susceptible to burnout and emotional exhaustion than non-Christian healthcare professionals, but I do think the two roles can compound each other’s challenges at times.

For example, as a Christian healthcare professional, do you ever feel as though these two parts of your identity exponentially multiply one another’s demands on your emotional reserves? Alternatively, do you ever detect a contradiction between those two parts of your identity? Do you ever feel that your faith is not welcome in healthcare, or that your medical identity is not welcome or—even worse—is taken advantage of in the church? I know I have experienced all of these feelings at times.

From the conversations at work in which colleagues stridently disagree with my views on bioethical and moral issues, to those Sundays when someone essentially wants a consult on their sick child in the church hallway, to the days when my well of compassion has run too dry to find the reserves to minister to my patients’ spiritual needs, sometimes it’s difficult to integrate my faith and my practice of healthcare.

An article crossed both my inbox and my Facebook feed recently entitled “Here’s Why Women Doctors Need Time Together.” It certainly wasn’t an academic study, but, as a woman physician, I was intrigued by the title. One sentence summarizes the author’s major premise: “There is an amazing power in gathering, shared experiences and decreasing isolation.” And I agree. When I watch my kids play sports or perform, I gather with other parents who share that experience—and we cheer as loudly as we can. When my marriage needs refreshment, my husband and I gather with other couples that share the experiences, both joyful and difficult, of marriage—and the isolation of our challenges is decreased. When I read a great book, I gather with my fellow literature-loving book club members to discuss it. In so many aspects of our lives, we seek community over shared experiences, and we feel a little bit more connected and a little bit more known than we were before.

As Christians, the idea of gathering, sharing experiences, supporting one another and living in community is foundational. Isn’t that what Hebrews 10:24-25, among other passages, commands?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 

Most of the Christ-followers I know take this to heart, gathering with fellow believers in some setting or another on a regular basis. Corporate worship, corporate prayer, Scripture reading and meditation, communion and teaching all serve to deepen our faith and to strengthen our bond with one another.

In my own life, I have places in which I gather with colleagues, and I have places in which I gather with Christ-followers. But sometimes I want those two defining parts of me—my faith and my medical training—to be considered together as important parts of my whole self. Those rare places where I can bring both of those parts of me are places I treasure. Places that offer respite. Where I feel understood. Where my isolation decreases. For me, the vast majority of those places relate to CMDA. From TRANSFORM: CMDA’s National Convention to Marriage Enrichment Weekends to commission meetings to my local CMDA chapter’s annual fall banquet, CMDA offers oases where my soul rests in feeling known and understood. Even my informal Bible study, in which I meet regularly with two dear friends, came out of CMDA. Of course, these gatherings offer more than just rest. They offer education, information, support and accountability. They meet needs that cannot be fully met in medical meetings or in Christian gatherings, because I can bring both parts of myself. As I am refreshed, I become a more congruent person, with the separate “boxes” of my identity integrated in a healthier way, and that healthy, congruent physician has so much more to offer to the patients and colleagues to whom she returns.

I think Rekha Chandrabose’s article hits the nail on the head: We “don’t have identical experiences, but we don’t have to start the conversation by [explaining some fundamental aspect of our lives to one another]…We can just breathe a little easier and know that the assumption in the room is that we all want [to reach similar end goals].” We can support one another as we grow into stronger, more faith-filled healthcare professionals and as we offer our patients both physical and spiritual healing.

This Feature Story Appears in:

Summer 2018 Edition of Today’s Christian Doctor