Wounded healers: Greek myth or transformative metaphor for medicine today?

Suffering in medicine is palpable and comes in different forms – a bounding arterial pulse, an anguished cry of a baby, or it may be as silent as the night. As pediatric critical care physicians, we are intimately familiar with this suffering. It’s part of our everyday professional life, juxtaposed with moments of profound joy and achievement. Yet, the weight of this suffering often goes unspoken; it becomes an undercurrent in the hectic flow of healthcare.

We are trained to accept suffering as an inherent and unavoidable aspect of medicine. Our role is to do our best to alleviate the suffering of others. Our patients come to us in their most vulnerable of states, and as healthcare professionals, we extend our expertise to offer care, support, guidance, partnership and healing – no matter what state we are in ourselves.

These shared experiences of vulnerability and distress between patients and providers allow us to forge a unique bond, demonstrating the practice of medicine as a moral endeavor.

Seeking meaning amidst suffering

Amidst this landscape of shared suffering, we pose a question: Is it possible for healthcare professionals to find meaning and purpose? Sometimes, to uncover answers for our present and future, we need to seek the wisdom of the past. The concept of the “wounded healer,” first coined by Carl Jung in 1951, offers a compelling perspective. In one of his final writings, Jung, drawing inspiration from the Greek mythology story of Chiron, suggested that only a wounded physician could heal effectively. Do you agree? To some degree, we do, and so did the Greeks!

Chiron, the wisest of all the centaurs wounded by Hercules with a poisoned arrow, illustrates a powerful transformation of suffering into healing. Despite his immortal nature, Chiron’s wound was incurable, causing him unending pain. Yet, he chose to transform this suffering into helping others, becoming a legendary healer and mentor to another great Greek hero known in medicine, Achilles.

Reflecting on modern medicine through ancient wisdom

In our present context, these ancient narratives prompt critical questions:

  • How long can healthcare professionals, who themselves may be wounded, continue to heal others?
  • Are we, as professionals, immune to our own wounds and traumas?
  • Can encounters between suffering patients and wounded healers be a mutual source of transformation and healing?

In our article, “Addressing Wounded Healer’s Burnout and Moral Distress: Starts and Ends with Integrity,” we seek to explore these questions. We delve into these complex questions, grounding our discussion in the concepts of integrity and trauma-informed care. We view integrity not just as a professional virtue, but also as an essential part of our identity as healthcare professionals. Our focus is on how distressing and traumatic experiences within the healthcare environment can challenge and potentially erode this core aspect of our being.

We argue that the integrity and moral well-being of healthcare professionals are crucial, not only for the individuals themselves but also for the overall culture within healthcare organizations. This integrity directly impacts factors such as psychological safety, the ethical climate of the workplace and, ultimately, patient safety. When the moral well-being of healthcare professionals is compromised, it can lead to a ripple effect, influencing various aspects of healthcare delivery and organizational culture.

Recognizing and addressing healthcare professional suffering

Unlike the immortal Chiron, we, healthcare professionals (and organizations), are not immune to our wounds. Echoing the wisdom of Vicktor Frankl, a physician and Holocaust survivor, we believe that suffering is a fundamental human experience, meaningful in its own right.

Acknowledging our wounds and trauma, like Chiron and Victor Frankl did, can imbue our professional endeavors with deeper purpose and understanding. This transformative process begins with a shift in our perspective, a willingness to respond adaptively and constructively to the inevitable challenges we face.

In conclusion, our collective experiences and insights into the nature of suffering in healthcare can catalyze a transformative shift. This shift is essential at all organizational levels to support the moral well-being of all healthcare professionals and enhance patient care.

By Dr. Tessy A. Thomas, pediatric intensivist and bioethicist, Geisinger-Janet Weis Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Satid Thammasitboon, pediatric intensivist and education scholar, Center for Research, Innovation and Scholarship in Health Professions Education, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *