The first time I cried in front of a patient I was working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and at the end of a 30-hour shift one of my patients passed away. Surprisingly, that itself wasn’t what made me cry. It was rather the mother’s response to the passing of her child, those tender last words that she whispered in her newborn’s ears while the medical team circled about turning off the machinery that previously provided a background soundtrack of beeps, swooshes, and dings. I felt the tears rising up and did not want my own emotion to in any way take away from this special moment between mother and child, so I fled the bedside with the intention of crying alone in the employee bathroom. As soon as the metal double doors of her NICU pod swung shut behind me, I went into a full ugly cry. As I navigated to the bathroom through the blur of tears in front of me, I saw the father of one of my other patients and tried to avoid eye contact. I was mortified that my professional exterior had been shattered and thought that this father would now see me as a weaker version of myself.
Later on as I rounded on my patients I nervously approached the bedside of the father who saw me crying. I examined his child as usual, updated the parents, and then turned to flee. The dad though interrupted my getaway and said, “I heard about what happened on the other side of the NICU and then I saw you crying. It was good to see my child’s doctor care so much about one of her patients. I’m happy you are her doctor.”
This encounter hasn’t made me more likely to cry in front of patients, but it does reassure me that those times when it is unavoidable it may not been seen negatively by the parents. Sadness is a normal emotion and doctors are not immune to it although surrounded by it often. Now as a parent, I am often overcome by the suffering of families because I know firsthand about the love between a parent and child and imagine myself in their place. I find myself with teary eyes more often than before and I continue to struggle with how to balance that emotion, which sometimes comes from a personal place, with my professional role. As a mother now, I know that like the father who gave me his support, I too would want a doctor who loved someone enough to cry.