Physicians aren’t immune to the diseases they treat, can suffer burnout stress

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2014

Born in Rochester, New York, Cormac O’Donovan may have an American address on his birth certificate, but his Irish accent speaks volumes of his heritage. “I’ve lived in the United States a little longer than Ireland, so I don’t believe I will go back now,” O’Donovan admits. But at first, it was questionable in which location O’Donovan would remain. O’Donovan’s parents moved to New York for his father’s job. O’Donovan’s father was obtaining his PhD in Physiology in upstate New York at the time of O’Donovan’s birth. Shortly after, the family went back to Ireland. O’Donovan and his four younger siblings were then raised in Galway, Ireland. Once O’Donovan decided to become a doctor, he went to school in Ireland. However, O’Donovan decided to follow in his father’s footsteps while pursuing further studies in neurology.
“In our healthcare system in Ireland, people have had to go abroad for training. There just isn’t enough infrastructure to train like the facilities in the U.S.,” says O’Donovan. “Speaking for myself and being trained here, many of the other Irish doctors have returned back to Ireland. I think it’s a common thing.” O’Donovan worked at a Cleveland clinic for six years. There, he studied epilepsy, sleep cycles, and neurology. O’Donovan then ended up at Wake Forest in 1995 and has never looked back. O’Donovan is undeniably fascinated with the brain and how it works. “I think one of the things in neurology, is it is problem solving and then making a diagnosis. Because of the way medicine is, there are a lot of tests we have that don’t always give the answer.” O’Donovan likes to solve those problems by interacting with the patients and asking them a lot of questions, especially when it comes to epilepsy. “If you look at a patient as a whole, the memory is often affected with epilepsy. They have a lot of memory problems that can affect them. Because of the brain problem, there can be emotional consequences like depression and anxiety.” O’Donovan believes there is a social stigma that still follows folks with epilepsy. “People feel like it could be a contagious disease, but it’s not. If you apply for a job and you mention the word seizures, people are concerned. There are several famous people with epilepsy who have done very well.”
It’s clear O’Donovan likes to study what makes people tick, as he has even studied those within his own field. He believes physicians and nurses may overwork themselves. A specific example of this occurred years ago in a case that sparked publicity. It is known as the Libby Zion case. A relatively healthy eighteen-year-old went to the emergency room in Manhattan feeling ill. She died twenty-four hours later as a result of inadequate care from overworked residents. Libby’s father, who understood his daughter’s death was one-hundred-percent preventable, was irate. He has since fought to reduce physicians work hours and has changed medical history. The case is parallel to what O’Donovan believes is important. Medical personnel must mentally take care of themselves. However, it can be the nurses and doctors who are the worst patients. “Our main job is to help the patients. That’s always been the goal. But getting into medical school is stressful. Getting a job and keeping a job is competitive. These people are quite smart in one way but not smart in looking after themselves.” Eventually, the providers begin to suffer from what is commonly called burnout. They feel a personal responsibility to cure patients, constantly produce in the office, and have been trained to work grueling hours despite evidence it is not healthy. “When people come to you and say, ‘Cure me,’— even if there are cases of an incurable patient, all physicians have a silent case of failure, because we want to cure everyone even though we know we can’t.”
O’Donovan states that the competitive industry also may have others feel as if they cannot completely admit to signs of burnout. “Some may think if they show these symptoms of burnout, they might be viewed as a weaker doctor and that’s simply not true. Just because physicians know about diseases doesn’t mean they can prevent them from happening to themselves,” says O’Donovan. “As providers, we see ourselves as someone ready to act to any emergency. So in a sense, you never let your guard down.” O’Donovan, however, is letting his guard down and admits he has experienced indicators of burnout. He has felt overwhelmed. He has felt he is not performing up to his potential. “I thought, ‘Well if I say I can’t do as much,’ people might think I can’t do the job. But that’s not true. I believe I had symptoms of burnout partly trying to keep up with the demands and trying to provide the same level of patient satisfaction and being of service to team members,” O’Donovan admits. “A lot of times, nurses and physicians don’t seek help because they don’t see themselves in the role of the patients unless it is extreme. Fifty percent of providers in the healthcare field feel burnout. Some departments may be more prone, like the emergency rooms.” O’Donovan decided to take a proactive approach. He refused to let burnout continue in his life and is happier now for it. Here are some of the actions he took and some other medical personnel may as well. “I try to find a work/life balance. I have had to understand I am not the only physician who can help. I have had to understand I am not living to work but working to live.” O’Donovan admits, taking a step back can be challenging. “It is counterintuitive to work less because it is not what we are encouraged to do. Our approach has been to make sure the patient is healthy in all respects. However, we have to make sure we are keeping healthy ourselves because we will not help people if we are not healthy ourselves. There is a phrase used in academics, ‘Physician heal thyself.’” Now if we can only live by that philosophy. Slow down. We are not impervious to pain. Take care of yourself and do not be critical when you do. O’ Donovan is a neighbor who has brought the luck of the Irish to our hospital and is also a reminder to find balance in our work life. (So does that mean I should take next week off?)

“Your Neighbor” is a feature by Jill Osborn. If you have a neighbor everybody should know, reach Jill at Also follow her blog on parenting at