My Only Real Fear is Dying Alone

As a healthcare provider trained to diagnose, I understand very well that there are things you say and things you do not say. There are things, if uttered, which will label you as a “threat to self or others.” We, as healthcare providers, expect ourselves to be the strong ones. We refuse to expose chinks in our armor through long hours dealing with patients, many times, close to death. Or, even worse during the times our patients die despite our best efforts.

Recently I had an out of body experience. No, I wasn’t the one facing death. My patient was the one close to it. I stood in the family waiting room, listening to myself in a surreal moment, tell a son and daughter, barely out of high school, to brace themselves for the fact that their father was never going to wake up.

When did I become that person?

After sleeping on this post, I made a decision.

If Sam and Sean have the guts to write about this so do I.


Before I go on, I want it known that this is not some cry for help. It isn’t a scream hoping for someone to look in my direction and throw me some trite attention. I am in no mood for psycho-babble-bullshit.


It is a Friday night. I sit here, behind my laptop at 9:42 p.m.

I should be at a bbq.

Instead, I am hiding behind my computer.

A friend once commented that he had no idea how I do my job. How I could constantly expose myself to such trauma and heartbreak.

I wonder that myself.

Today, I realized that constant exposure to the most horrible tragedies is possible when the rest of your life is solid. When you are emotionally, physically healthy.

Enter in a helicopter crash. A divorce. Friends scattered all over the globe. Uncertainty with my Army career. Rumors of deployment. Family that doesn’t understand. Someone closer to my heart than anyone, who decided to judge me. A life I have allowed to be reduced to overgrown flower beds, three inches of dust and a cracked driveway. A car that needs new tires, and a checking account that needs balanced.

I go to work to forget.

For a brief moment, all I have is that flight. That one patient. That person who, on my stretcher, reminds me that my life is okay.

That is why I jump from airplanes. Why I get tattooed. Why I go faster than I should in my car, on my motorcycle.

I need to feel. I need to be reminded that I am alive. In those moments I feel alive.

The psychiatrists of the world—piss off.

I don’t need therapy.

I don’t need medications.

I need balance.

I constantly wear a bracelet etched with my name, allergies, birth date. It contains a code linked an account which lists my emergency contacts.

The only thing I fear is dying alone.

That is why I have to fly.

Why I constantly expose myself to the heartache. Expose myself to pain. Expose myself to death.

I face my fears with passion and conviction.

I sacrifice for my patients. By doing so, I ensure they won’t face pain or in the most extreme cases, face death . . .

. . . alone . . .

As healthcare providers we need to talk about our pain. The pain we feel as we grieve the lives lost, not of our loved ones, but of the ones we have given a personal commitment to protect, to care for. As nurses, EMTs, physicians, we dance the extremely fine line between burnout and professional fulfillment.

The irony? If we no longer sacrifice a piece of ourselves, no matter large or small, for each person we care for, we are no longer able to effectively do our jobs. An emotional connection keeps you sharp when you are exhausted. Keeps your mind to the task at hand when the small crises of your personal life are begging for attention. If we completely protect ourselves from the pain, we miss the most important aspect of our profession. An aspect that cannot be taught. It must be felt, endured, suffered, accepted.

Sometimes the pain becomes hard to bear.

However, I refuse to live in fear.

I refuse to let it vanquish me.

I need to fly. I HAVE to fly.

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  1. Beautiful Post. You hit the nail right on the head. There are days that I miss working in healthcare and there are days that I am glad that I don’t work in healthcare anymore. One of these days I will get around to working on my blog that has some of the healthcare stories that I remember.

  2. Emily,
    Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re making a difference in the world and that’s more than a lot of people can say. I’ve also been there…done that. It’s not always easy, but some of us do it anyway.

    Hang in there…you rock, girl!

  3. Thanks JP—-
    I don’t think I know how to do anything else! Things will settle back down. Seems like every 7-8 years the cycle repeats itself. I re-evaluate, clean out the clutter, and make/change some goals. I always forget how painful the process is though!

    Now if I could only figure out what to do with the 500 lbs of professional journals I seem to keep forever!

  4. Emily,
    Come on……. You are the last person that should ever worry about being alone. Your life will work its self out. You have a great support group… Just use them. Make time for yourself. Go out, go camping or golfing…. or even BOATING, summer is almost over. I know how hard it is to deal with dying patients when your own life is in the shit house. I have been there, I think I live there. But life goes on. This is the only hand of cards we get, play them the best you can. Bluff big, and go all in. If we don’t gamble then we can never win. You have to lose a few times to really understand that big win. I carried that way to Keep your head up. You can do it. Miss you. JS

  5. This is a great post, and I am so glad you decided to share it with us. I think you are writing about things that are universal to our profession, and yet people can be very reluctant to admit some of these things, out of a fear of appearing weak. The ironic thing is that denying that there is pain involved is the “easy” path, and admitting the pain is there is sometimes the hardest thing to do.

  6. blubber blubber wiping tears from his eyes. Being the hard core MF that i am it is difficult to express what i fell which is what you wrote, ohh i found a flight school in St. louis for direct to rotary wing …HOOAH!! ok back on track. I think that is why ive been so blah lately. since moving to SICU ive held quite a few hands as they went limp and cold and maybe its the lack of emotion that disturbes me the most. its not burnout but more of a hard candy shell to prevent my inner chocolate center from melting. well confab at drill and get sticky on the subject?

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