Whole Person Care Congress provides safe space for clinicians to share their pain and frustration – as well as empathy and hope 

There was a searing moment on the third day of McGill’s International Congress on Whole Person Care, held in the fall, when a conference room full of medical practitioners began to share their experiences and their feelings. 

The conversation, some of it anguished, all of it confidential, was about how much doctors care about patients; about what happens to their healthy patients when they themselves retire, leaving one less doctor in the system; about how there isn’t enough time, or enough of anything, to make it all better. 

During this session, with about 50 participants in the room, the pain was palpable, as was the frustration. There were tears and choked voices.  

But there was also reassurance from peers to those sharing the distress of situations that may have been hopeless from the beginning, and reminders to doctors that their very presence at a patient’s bedside is sometimes the best thing that can be provided, sometimes the only thing. 

As the conference session continued, with a steady stream of participants filling the 90 minutes, there were descriptions of broken family relationships because one spouse was lugging too much stress home from the job; of avoiding certain branches of medicine, like pediatrics, where you never have just one patient, but always a patient with parents, and where the emotional toll can be overwhelming; of losing sleep thanks to terror in the middle of the night about the remote chance of making a serious mistake. 

That’s in part because, as one participant suggested, “medical culture can be toxic… we were constantly taught to push this stuff away.” 

There were many elephants in the room (a conference theme) during this session. And one enormous one, pointed out another participant: “The elephant that is in this room is that our healthcare system is on its knees. It was before COVID, and now it’s worse.” 

Acceptance, a fellow participant pointed out, is really the only way. “There’s never enough. What we already have is never enough. We must be OK with doing what we can, knowing there are people out there who won’t get what they need. And it’s so hard.” 

The session wrapped up fittingly with a poem by David Whyte titled, Enough.  

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here. … 

After reading it together and examining its meaning, hope emerged, as did a means to face life moment by moment, breath by breath.