Fighting Viral Discouragement

By. Dr. Brad Duce

I agreed to write this post at the end of February, which, given what has happened since then, might as well have been 10 years ago. At the time, exams were still scheduled, schools were still in session, my spring break plans involved a lot more travel, and our society was a lot less focused on toilet paper. Covid-19 was a much more distant problem only a short time ago than the rapidly progressing global crisis that has been evolving over the past few weeks.

While I had planned to write something a little more benign about being a dad in residency, or about the difficulties of making a late career change to medicine, I’m finding that my own thoughts are more or less dominated by everything having to do with the Covid-19 pandemic. I imagine that it isn’t any different for many of you, especially those who had planned on writing exams over the next few months and that have suddenly had their plans thrown into disarray.

I won’t pretend to have the answers to the uncertainties ahead and I’m not going to say that these aren’t very trying times. In Alberta, we’ve compounded an already uncertain financial and economic environment with a health crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. No one can say how much will change, but we can probably say that we haven’t reached the end of our difficulties yet.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a short story I came across a few years ago about Thomas Edison and his attitude toward hardship.[i]

In 1914, a factory owned by Edison went up in flames. Many of the materials kept at the plant were highly flammable, so despite fire companies from EIGHT towns rushing to stop the blaze, it quickly grew completely out of control. Edison had been using all the money generated by the factory to fund his development of the nickel-iron storage battery, and he didn’t have any other sort of cash reserve. The total value of the destruction was estimated at a modern $23 million, and insurance was going to cover less than a third of the loss. Edison was 67 years old at the time and had to watch his life’s work literally go up in flames.

Edison’s son Charles later wrote that he frantically searched for his father among the crowd watching the fire. When Charles finally found him, he expected his father to be broken and discouraged. Instead, Edison said, “Where’s your mother? Tell her to get her friends – they’ll never see another fire like this as long as they live!”

By that morning, Edison had already initiated construction to rebuild the plant. None of his employees lost their jobs but were instead re-tasked in the construction efforts. The truly incredible thing is that much of Edison’s legacy and enduring contribution to today’s world was built after that disaster.[ii]

My purpose is not to jump on my soapbox today and tell everyone that the power of positive thinking is going to fix all of our problems. I just want to offer what encouragement I can to stay well and focus on the good. We’re going to run into our share of problems, but that does not necessarily need to lead to discouragement. Remember, discouragement is its own virus and left unchecked can erode our happiness and hopes for the future. Fortunately, with some prophylactic treatment, we can keep it from taking hold in our minds or spreading to impact our mental health or that of those around us.

To fend off the spread of discouragement, here are a few practical tips to keep yourself mentally and physically well through the coming months. Even if you have heard them before, they are worth reviewing.

  1. Focus on helping others

Helping others makes your own problems a little lighter and I can say with certainty that there are plenty of people, including the most vulnerable to this disease, that could use some help and encouragement right about now.

  1. Fight the virus with viral

Excuse the cheesy title. We know that this virus is highly infectious, and likely follows an exponential infection curve. As physicians and residents, we have the opportunity to act as a trusted voice in our communities and networks to spread information to help manage this crisis. Don’t underestimate your ability to make a difference by speaking to those around you or posting on social media about mitigation of the virus spread and its impact on the health care system. Unfortunately, the worst is probably yet to come in Alberta and we need to encourage everyone to do what they can to #flattenthecurve.

  1. Keep yourself well

This may sound selfish and self-centred, but the reality is that you can’t help anyone if you aren’t well yourself. This crisis is compounding the difficulties of residency with greater isolation, workload, and uncertainty about the future. Be proactive in maintaining your mental and physical health.

A few quick suggestions on that point.

  1. Stay active. This may go on for months. Keep your energy and mental health up by finding ways to stay active in any way you can.
  2. I know, I know – sleep is already hard to come by, but have you ever heard someone say to “stay awake on a problem?” No, you haven’t, because problems are always easier after some sleep. Be intentional about planning it.
  3. Eat well. You’ll feel better if you do, and a little meal prep at the beginning of the week will open up other time for the items above.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Despite all the difficulties in the world, there is still quite a lot to be positive about.

We still have plenty of troubles and uncertainty ahead, but I’ll finish with another quote from Mr. Edison. After that devastating fire that destroyed everything he’d built in 67 years, he told his vice-president, “There’s only one thing to do, and that is to jump right in and rebuild.”[iii]

I think the same applies to us as resident physicians. We don’t know how things will play out, but the future holds plenty of promise, and right now, there is nothing to do but jump in and work towards it.

Stay safe and stay well!

[i] To be clear, I’m not trying to shore up Edison’s place in history. I’ve heard he had some questionable business practices, but I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion either way. If you do know about it, and feel strongly enough, feel free to direct me to the right resources and I’ll try to get up to speed. Either way, he shows incredible resilience in this story.
[ii] Adapted from “Thomas Edison’s Reaction To His Factory Burning Down Shows Why He Was So Successful”, https://www.businessinsider.com/thomas-edison-in-the-obstacle-is-the-way-2014-5
[iii] Ibid.

***

Dr. Brad Duce is a family medicine resident physician at the University of Calgary.