I’m a female emergency physician in my mid 30’s, one of my older male colleagues and I were recently involved in a really disturbing pediatric trauma. I have been practicing for several years and feel that I have a pretty tough skin but the details of this particular case keep haunting me. I have tried to talk to my colleague about it but he seems a bit aloof, which is a little surprising because until this point I have always felt he was very supportive and that we got along well. Honestly I feel a little isolated and disappointed, any hints?
All of us in emergency medicine have an Achille’s heel. Emotional pediatric traumas, for instance, can make even the most stoic amongst us question the greater meaning of the universe (especially if we also happen to be parents). Before you write your colleague off as an icy fish, consider that we all deal with stress differently, and that women may deal with stress slightly differently then men.
Rena Repetti has done research that has shown that men who have bad days at work often go home and isolate themselves while women in the same scenario may actually seek out opportunities to nurture their family members. This is further supported by Shelley Taylor’s research suggesting that the “fight or flight” stress response for women may be inaccurate and that a “tend and befriend” response is more appropriate. In this model women seek out their children and other women in times of stress and that this bond makes them feel more relaxed. This bonding probably releases oxytocin. For those of you who still remain cynical of the power of this other big “O,” please consider that childbirth rarely results in PTSD!
So what you need to do in order to move through this may be different than what your male colleague needs. Many men are not adept or comfortable verbally processing emotionally charged material. This is why your boyfriend may ramble on for hours about Peyton Manning’s or Brett Farve’s passing percentages but then turns into a deaf mute the second he is asked the elusive “but how do you feel” question. Conversely, this is also why many women need to rehash difficult events over and over again before they can comfortably delegate them to storage (where they will sit but a few synapses away for all eternity.)
Your colleague may need time to internally process the event and if and when he ultimately wants to discuss it, he may choose to do so with someone who was not involved. Men often bond and debrief while they are engaged in unrelated tasks, like poker or basketball. Don’t feel slighted or judgmental if this is what he needs in order to move forward.
Ultimately you need to concentrate on your own wellness. Don’t underestimate the impact of this event and don’t beat yourself up because it seems harder to “let this one go”. All of us, even the most seasoned, struggle sometimes. Please consider a delayed debriefing (which could include other involved staff), or seeking out a therapist or religious counselor.
This month’s Broca’s Area is by Jeannette Wolfe, MD