We received the news on a Sunday evening. Word spread incredibly quickly, as these things do.
A colleague, an anaesthetist, a friend, had committed suicide.
We all expressed our disbelief- how could this happen?
And yet it does happen, and with alarming frequency amongst medical professionals.
I thought of this colleague, and of other colleagues lost to suicide. I thought of my last interaction with each of them. I didn’t try to answer the why, because these things are beyond answers- they involve situations and emotions and circumstances weaved into a pattern too intricate for me to pick apart. But was there some sign, some tell-tale indication that things would end like this? And if there had been, does that mean we lacked the insight to do something, anything, to prevent it?
Not many of the others could see it, because you had just started your training at our hospital. But we knew you from before, from internship. We knew enough about your optimistic, fun-loving, joyful personality to know that this doppelganger wasn’t you. Your ready smile was gone.
But your work never suffered. When we would run into each other on the ward, we would have the same conversation one seems to have at least ten times with ten different people every day when you’re a trainee:
‘So how are things going at orthopaedics / gynaecology / anaesthetics?’
‘Pretty crappy, I have had 3 calls in six days. I’m so tired I feel like I can’t even lift my arms. I’m so sleep deprived, I feel like I’m hallucinating.’
‘Tell me about it. And are you getting any studying done, cause I’m not? I can’t afford to bloody fail this exam and it’s in like 4 weeks. I still have 5 calls to do before then.’
‘Same here. And I complained to the head of department, but he’s not doing much about it. Meanwhile Emma, Josh AND Jason are all on leave at the same time and I have to cover their rounds as well. So sick of this shit!’
‘That’s insane. (Laughs) Why the hell are we doing this to ourselves?!’
‘I know, right? Hey, we should go out for a drink some time, catch up.’
‘Yeah, that sounds great…’
But we never did go out for that drink. Because rounds and exams and life gets in the way. And when you did fail that exam and you went off on leave afterwards, we all thought that it was perfectly normal and perfectly understandable- we would be upset too. Only after the fact did we piece together that it was a lot more serious than that, that the ‘leave’ was just one of many admissions to a psychiatric care facility for depression and anxiety. You never told us- because for all the whining and complaining we do when we run into each other on the wards, the unspoken rule is to suffer valiantly and NEVER to admit to any form of weakness.
When you qualified, we imagined that it would all be smooth sailing from there- the exam was out of the way, you were ready to embark on the career that you had been training for for more than a decade. We didn’t know that the admissions continued. We didn’t know that threats of suicide had become so commonplace that those closest to you were watching you very carefully. We didn’t know that you had started combining alcohol with your psych meds to cope. We didn’t know that your employer had noticed the slurred speech and trembling hands that we had dismissed, and they had approached you about it. We didn’t notice that things had been spiraling out of control, ever faster.
I am sorry that you felt like this was the only way out. I hope that you are at peace.
The person described in this post is a composite of many colleagues- in order to honour the privacy of the individuals involved.