A patient reached out to a doctor, and they helped each other heal

Kim Downey:

“Each year, almost 400 physicians die by suicide.” That sentence stopped me in my tracks.

I’d been reading all the articles here on KevinMD for almost a year when I came across one written by Dr. Avellino, with the opening line above.

One of my amazing doctors had died several months prior. I was, and in some ways still am, struggling with his death from over a year ago.

I clicked on Dr. Avellino’s website, immediately ordered his book, Finding Purpose: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey of Hope and Healing, read it cover to cover as soon as it arrived, and sent him an e-mail thanking him for writing it. I shared a brief summary of my recent medical trials, telling him I was devastated by the death of my phenomenal radiologist. I commented that I had already been concerned about physician well-being, and I so appreciated his willingness to be honest and vulnerable in sharing his story, it undoubtedly helps others, and chips away at reducing the stigma. I mentioned that I’d recently had struggles of my own in regards to acceptance, finding peace, and moving forward, and found that I too needed to be vulnerable and talk with trusted listeners for my own well-being. I sincerely wished him all the best.

Dr. Avellino sent a very kind reply and offered to chat! I felt incredibly honored and privileged that as busy as he is, he took the time to have a meaningful conversation with me. Among other things, we discovered that we attended college, different schools, in the same town, at the same time! He offered to support my efforts in addressing physician well-being within my local health are system in any way that he could.

Dr. Tony Avellino:

During our one-hour conversation, I was inspired by Kim’s compassion and commitment to help physicians heal. We discussed that physician well-being and their finding meaning in their work are essential to achieve the triple aim of providing improved quality care, improved patient experience, and lower costs!

Being a physician is an incredible responsibility that brings an enormous amount of joy, happiness, and self-worth. It also has a burden of incredible guilt when explaining the daunting task of moving on when a patient’s outcome is grim or terminal. The compounding trauma of dealing with uncertainty and not being able to do anything takes its toll over time when one has not developed healthy self-coping mechanisms. Thus, having healthy patient relationships is essential to my overall well-being. I’ve become a more compassionate and caring physician today having learned so much from my own patients. They have helped me heal more than they could ever realize. Kim is an exceptional patient who continually helps others listen to discover their purpose in life, to learn from their failures to overcome personal struggles and difficulties, and to heal to achieve a healthier and more purposeful life and find happiness. No one should ever hit rock bottom and be at the brink as we must remove the stigma so that those with mental health concerns seek help.

Kim Downey:

At the close of our conversation, I told Dr. Avellino I was so glad that he is okay; I felt it in my whole heart.

Over the following months, I periodically updated him on the things I was doing to promote physician well-being; he always responded with kindness, enthusiasm, and encouragement.

Dr. Avellino graciously agreed to be a recent guest on my new podcast supporting physicians. We talked about the power of true listening, being able to stay in the present moment, the importance of being a continuous learner and of pausing, and connecting at the heart. “We need more compassion and love in medicine, including for ourselves!”

Feedback from Dr. Diana Londoño and Dr. Robert Kornfeld included an appreciation for surgeons speaking out and sharing ways to stay healthy not only in mind and body but in spirit as well. Also, gratitude for great doctors who share their story that will help and comfort many who feel alone and hopeless. Even the highly intelligent, highly trained among us are vulnerable to the challenges of being human!

Kim Downey and Dr. Tony Avellino:

Sometimes beautiful things can rise from the ashes of the saddest of things. We must all listen, learn, and heal with each other to achieve a healthier, peaceful, and purposeful life. We must remember we are never alone. And we must find hope, even in the darkest moments, for the lessons learned can give us insights on how to bring light to others.

We include the blessing of getting to know each other as one of those gifts. Thank you, as we appreciate each other!

Kim Downey is a physical therapist. Anthony Avellino is a pediatric neurosurgeon and the author of Finding Purpose: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey of Hope and Healing.

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