A Christmas Message to All Physicians From a Swedish-American Country Doctor in Maine


Growing up in Sweden without a Thanksgiving holiday, Christmas has been a time for me to reflect on where I am and where I have been and New Year’s is when I look forward.

I have written different kinds of Christmas reflections before: sometimes in jest, asking Santa for a better EMR; sometimes filled with compassion for physicians or patients who struggle during the holidays. I have also borrowed original sentences from Osler’s writings to imagine how he would address physicians in the present time.

This year, with the pandemic changing both medicine and so many aspects of life in general, and with a gut wrenching political battle that threatens to erupt in anarchy or civil war within the next few weeks or months, my thoughts run deep toward the soul of medicine, the purpose of being a good doctor, even being a good human being.

We live in ideological silos, protected from dissenting opinions. News is not news if it is unpopular. Fake news and fake science are concepts that seemed marginal before but have now entered the mainstream.

As a physician, I serve whoever comes to see me to the best of my ability. But this year I have had to pay extra attention to the fact that so many people have already made up their minds about the nature and severity of the pandemic we are living with. If they don’t believe the country’s top experts, they are not likely to believe in me. Still, I try to gently state that we are still trying to figure this thing out and until we do, it’s better to be cautious.

I am starting to read about what some are now calling the Fourth Wave of the pandemic, the mental health crisis this winter may see in the wake of the physical illness we are surrounded by.

With this raging pandemic and the pandemonium it has created in our personal lives and the lives of those around us, we as doctors need to keep our priorities straight:

  • A physician’s mission is to ease suffering.
  • We save lives when we can.
  • But sometimes, all we can do is help inevitable death happen with dignity and without unnecessary suffering.
  • Because we have seen suffering and death in our work, our words of experience and our empathy can help others.
  • We are all mental health workers in the eyes of our patients.
  • We must work hard to the best of our abilities.
  • But we cannot sacrifice our own health in the process.
  • We must put our own oxygen mask on first, as during in-flight emergencies.
  • We must accept that bad things happen in spite of our efforts.
  • We must accept that in life, there is no light without darkness, no joy without sorrow, and no good without evil.
  • We must recognize that we need to make every day count, because time, and life itself, is a finite resource.

Life is certainly messy, confusing and unpredictable. And while scientists and politicians may be using their brains for thinking of ways out of the situation the world is now in, the rest of us, doctors on the frontlines, are hunkering down in our shrunken worlds – reconnecting with the soulful, inconsistent underpinnings of who we really are but were perhaps too busy to really think about, recommitting to easing suffering, one patient at a time.

Remember Hippocrates: “Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile” — “Life is short, the art is long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.”

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

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