Finding Joy: An Interview With Emergency Physician Damian McHugh

4 Minute Read

Promoting holistic physician well-being is a key pillar of Curi’s mission to help physicians in medicine, business, and life—and it has assumed even greater importance as healthcare workers face the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. To better understand how physicians can remain resilient in this moment, we sat down with Dr. Damian McHugh, an emergency physician from Raleigh, North Carolina. As we explored the dynamic state of the medical field and the many challenges healthcare professionals continue to endure, Dr. McHugh described how humbling this experience has been and shared the ways he has been able to find joy, purpose, and gratitude throughout all facets of his life.

As an emergency physician, what has your experience been like so far dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic? What are some of the challenges and frustrations?

When it comes to ER professionals, they are known for being nimble, resourceful, and quick. We’re used to dealing in situations where there is a high risk of life or death with a less-than-adequate amount of information. That part is nothing new.

But our current situation has certainly tested people, as planning and execution have taken on new importance. We have never been through anything like this. We prepare for plane crashes, nuclear explosions, worksite disasters, and other major events to ensure we are ready to meet the unthinkable with a clear plan of action. We—nations, communities, and health systems alike—weren’t prepared for this, and it’s been a slap in the face.

I feel fortunate that, at least for North Carolina physicians, the case incidence and severity have been nowhere near that of our colleagues in New York, and I don’t know yet of any local hospitals facing a NY-weighted direct burden as a result of COVID-19. It’s possible we’re simply behind the curve, but we’re doing everything in our power to be prepared in that event, including public education, the safety of our department for both staff and patients, and using best clinical practices to the extent that we can assimilate and implement work from China, Europe, and other international and domestic hotspots.

People have described the physician experience as being on the “front lines” of this pandemic. Do you feel that’s an accurate perception?

I think it’s unfair to directly compare our experience to that of the daily dangers faced by police officers or military personnel. However, there are certainly parallels that can be drawn. The surprise element of this whole experience has brought it to new levels. It quickly moved from the T.V. screen to the waiting room, forcing us to use PPE for every case while recognizing there is a shortage and we may be unable to protect ourselves—that sort of immediate danger is uncommon in our profession. We don’t know much about this illness, and if we don’t take all the precautions possible, it could affect us and our families.

How is your practice ensuring that physicians and medical staff do not become overwhelmed?

In any given week or month, we’re always keen to keep balance and equity in our schedule, and our leadership invites physicians to be involved in the scheduling process. This gives them more control over their own schedules and enables greater choice in how much or little they want to work—allowing work responsibilities to dovetail with the needs of the family at home.

We have also begun practicing “Wellness Wednesdays,” during which time everyone will share fun photos and stories about their personal lives so that our inboxes aren’t completely drowned in COVID-19 news and information. That’s been a pure joy for all those involved as we get to see another side of our colleagues and partners and ground ourselves in reality outside of the workplace.

What has been one of your most memorable patient interactions associated with the crisis?

There are many every day, and for a diverse range of reasons. I reflected on my experiences lately, and a touching recollection was when I spoke with a sweet 94-year-old patient. Fully geared-up with double-gloves and goggles, I sat at her bedside and we discussed her symptoms.  With the kindest smile, she simply told me, “I have lived a great life, and have no regrets. If this is going to kill me—so be it.” That was a very humbling moment for me. We see this sometimes in patients, a combination of peace and joyfulness in the face of the unknown. It’s truly the pinnacle of human peace that surpasses understanding, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to share in that experience with them.

Have you experienced a “silver lining” to our current situation?

Several years ago, I realized that my silver lining each and every day is my wife and kids. I think today I am reminded of that more than ever. I’ve also seen a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for healthcare workers across the board. On any given day in most towns and cities in the U.S., there is unbridled 24/7 access to emergency care—and that is so often taken for granted. We’ve had random people send in small gifts, pay for pizza to be delivered to staff; even in the UK, in my mother’s town, the residents will stand in their doorway and clap for healthcare workers as a tribute to their hard work. People have found a new respect for medical professionals, and I can only hope that this renewed sense of gratitude and community continues well beyond the pandemic.

For me, this gives me an opportunity to underscore the pride I have in my colleagues and partners. I haven’t seen anyone shying away from the sickest of patients, and that makes me incredibly proud.

In the face of this adversity, how do you find joy?

I find joy in mindful emergency practice and golf. Over the years, my daily practice has changed what I prioritize, and I try to always be in the moment with my patients to truly connect and support them to the best of my abilities. Joy for me is living out my training on a daily basis. In my personal life, I find joy in my family, joy experiencing nature together, or laughing as we lose more golf balls into the lake together —these are the things that ground me and make me feel centered and humble.

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