Brent Wolfrom is a family physician and Postgraduate Program Director for family medicine at Queen’s University. He was previously a full time Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.
My past experiences working with the Canadian Armed Forces, in the South Pacific and the Mediterranean, and in particular during my times deployed in Afghanistan, taught me a great deal about coping with crises, stress, confusion, guilt, loss and grief.
In particular, they taught me how I myself cope with crises, be it an unexpected emergency requiring immediate action, or an expected and prolonged event involving complex systems and little control, much like what we are about to experience with COVID-19. As we head down this road, I find myself experiencing so many of the same emotions that I did during my deployments. I also find myself reflexively, and largely unconsciously, setting up supports, defences and plans.
Based on these experiences and lessons, I wrote a message to my fellow physicians in my department with some of the advice I wish I had received 12-13 years ago. I thought the rest of our physician family may also be interested.
- This event is unlike anything we have lived through before and we expect it to be drawn out, especially if social distancing does what we hope it will. It is likely that at some point we will transition from an acute to chronic crisis mentality. This can be a difficult transition because it can feel like defeat. It’s not. It’s us getting better at beating COVID-19.
- Plan now for wellness and stick to your plan rigidly. However, also set expectations at a realistic level.
- Find supports who will talk with you about non-COVID, and ideally non-medical, topics and stay in touch daily even if just by text or email.
- There will be long and dark days ahead and people will all cope differently. A small word of encouragement or appreciation from a colleague will make all the difference.
- Support each other. If you have the time or capacity to help someone just do it.
- Communicate with those who need information and minimize communication with those who don’t. Be deliberate about your email distributions and who you include on the To vs CC lines. Information overload is going to happen, and we need to be deliberate about protecting each other.
- Brush up now on the skills you consider outside, but proximal to, your normal scope of practice. You don’t know where you will be needed in the coming weeks.
- Remind yourself daily that you are trained to deal with this situation, even if that means lying to yourself a little bit.
- Grief doesn’t equal failure. Bad outcomes don’t equal failure. Recite those two phrases daily.
- There will be many changes and constraints over the coming weeks to Sports, clubs and social events that used to recharge you. Try to find a replacement for each joyful activity you lose.
Canadian physicians are instrumental in our nation’s defence against this threat, and we will be even stronger and better at the end of all of this. Best of luck and I look forward to seeing you on the other side of this.