Compassion Fatigue in the ER and Beyond: When caring leads to an inability to care

compassion fatigue

That doctor was horrible! How could she be so rude? She’s a doctor after all.


What is Compassion Fatigue?

In December 2020, a relative had just been at the hospital with my grandmother recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The oncologist on site had been described as rude and inattentive to my grandmother’s needs, or so I was told. Due to COVID-19, the number of visitors had been limited in the hospital. Everything I heard regarding the quality of care my grandmother received was through word of mouth. Initially, I was furious. Then, I stopped and pondered the situation, leading to a realization and inspiration for this article. Perhaps the doctor was not as rude as she was made out to be. Perhaps, she was undergoing compassion fatigue, the emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion fatigue is often due to burnout and stress, something which I believe to be more prevalent during the COVID-19 era. However, compassion fatigue is not a new term. I first heard it during my internship with the Emergency Department at Toronto Western this summer. It is only now; I am beginning to see it unfold in real life, and truly understand it. Therefore, for this article, I will discuss compassion fatigue, how to notice it, and how to prevent becoming a victim to burnout.

burn-out army
Figure 1. The Roll Call is an 1874 oil-on-canvas painting by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. The worn soldiers resonate, what I imagine to be a very burnt-out army of front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compassion Fatigue in the ER and Beyond?

Compassion fatigue is not unique to any one medical specialty; however, it is commonly seen in high-stress specialties where patients are normally sicker and in a more critical condition. In a study of ED nurses (Borges 2019), compassion fatigue was more prevalent in women and decreased with the increasing age of the nurse. Reasons for these trends were that women were more likely to experience their patients’ pain compared to men, and older nurses were more equipped to handle stressful situations compared to younger nurses. Gribben et al. (2019) looked at compassion fatigue in pediatric emergency medicine physicians and found burnout was the highest predicting factor in developing compassion fatigue. Interestingly, this group’s prevalence of compassion fatigue was lower compared to other pediatric specialties that followed patients longitudinally. This may suggest that the greater the relationship with the patient, the greater the impact of developing compassion fatigue; however, only one of the few papers suggested this relationship. In another study. Hooper et al. (2010), assessed compassion fatigue across multiple specialties (nephrology, oncology, intensive care, emergency medicine), and found no significant difference in compassion fatigue among these groups. While there was no statistically significant difference in compassion fatigue in this study, 82% of ER nurses reported moderate to high burnout levels, and 85% of ER nurses reported high levels of compassion fatigue.

Moreover, certain specialties were more likely to report a different adverse experience related to the job. For example, burnout was higher in intensive care doctors, compassion fatigue was higher in oncologists, and healthcare providers in the ER were more likely to report less compassion satisfaction and the pleasure of doing work. Currently, compassion fatigue is becoming a major concern in the era of COVID-19. Ruiz et al. looked at compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction in Spain’s healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, physicians reported higher compassion fatigue and burnout scores compared to nurses, who reported higher compassion satisfaction scores, despite reporting similar perceived stress. One explanation for compassion satisfaction in the nurses were their perceived importance during the pandemic.

Model of Compassion Fatigue

Since compassion fatigue is prevalent in medicine, it is important to understand some of the theories behind compassion fatigue and what causes it. Cocker and Joss (2016) provide one example of a model on compassion fatigue.

Model of Compassion Fatigue
Figure 2: Compassion Fatigue Model adapted from Cocker and Joss

This model encompasses many of the concepts cited in the literature regarding compassion fatigue, such as burnout, secondary trauma and compassion satisfaction. Although compassion fatigue is one definition, it is important to fully understand the concepts used in the model by Cocker and Joss (2016), to better our understanding of what compassion fatigue is and it relates to other variables encountered in the healthcare field. Compassion fatigue is the emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to an inability to feel compassion or empathize with another. Compassion Satisfaction is the amount of pleasure derived from being able to do work. Burnout occurs when an individual cannot reach their goals, leading to frustration, loss of morale, and decreased willful efforts. Finally, secondary traumatic stress arises from a rescue-caretaking response and occurs when an individual cannot rescue or save someone from harm, resulting in significant guilt and distress. Compassion fatigue can be caused when there is increased burnout or exposure to secondary trauma. While stressors can be part of the medical career, especially in the ED, compassion fatigue does not always need to become a consequence. Compassion satisfaction can act as a mediator, thus counteracting the negative effects of burnout and secondary trauma. One mechanism for the beneficial role of compassion satisfaction is its importance for building resiliency and transforming negative experiences to positive experiences.

How to Notice and Manage Compassion Fatigue

Given the impact of compassion fatigue on a physician and their ability to care for a patient, it is important to recognize and prevent the development of compassion fatigue. Some studies (Peters et. Al, 2018) acknowledge the need for education on compassion fatigue and suggest that this needs to be implemented at the individual and institutional level. Moreover, it is essential to note that many health professionals are not aware of compassion fatigue (Berg et. Al, 2016). Two inventories which have been used to assess for compassion fatigue in the literature include the Professional Quality of Life Scale and the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory. Berg describes that while most health professionals have their own individualized ways of dealing with stress, none of the healthcare providers interviewed in his study reported receiving any training in compassion fatigue. Berg mentions that group coping and debrief sessions can be useful strategies to prevent compassion fatigue (Berg et al., 2016; Schmidt et al., 2017). Finally, other institutional strategies may include identifying employees at high risk of compassion fatigue, provision of training to identify and cope with compassion fatigue, the use of workshops to promote self-care and other measures, such as open dialogue, to validate compassion fatigue and the risk it poses to healthcare provider wellbeing (Smith, 2012).

Closing Remarks

Compassion Fatigue is real, and often insidious in the presentation. Unfortunately, the concept of compassion fatigue is not always known, and at times its presence among ourselves and our colleagues can be challenging to identify. I believe that this is a concept which must be discussed, especially with the growing demands on healthcare providers and increasing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes caring can have negative impacts on healthcare providers. So begs the question, who takes care of healthcare providers while they are caring for others. We are not immune to the stress that comes with our job. Importantly, we must find ways to identify and support one another to not diminish our ability to care.

Cite this article as: Brenda Varriano, Canada, "Compassion Fatigue in the ER and Beyond: When caring leads to an inability to care," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, February 17, 2021,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

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References and Further Reading

  • Berg, G. M., Harshbarger, J. L., Ahlers-Schmidt, C. R., & Lippoldt, D. (2016). Exposing Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Syndrome in a Trauma Team: A Qualitative Study. Journal of trauma nursing : the official journal of the Society of Trauma Nurses, 23(1), 3–10.
  • Borges, E., Fonseca, C., Baptista, P., Queirós, C., Baldonedo-Mosteiro, M., & Mosteiro-Diaz, M. P. (2019). Compassion fatigue among nurses working on an adult emergency and urgent care unit. Fadiga por compaixão em enfermeiros de urgência e emergência hospitalar de adultos. Revista latino-americana de enfermagem, 27, e3175.
  • Cocker, F., & Joss, N. (2016). Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers: A Systematic Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(6), 618.
  • Gribben, J. L., MacLean, S. A., Pour, T., Waldman, E. D., & Weintraub, A. S. (2019). A Cross-sectional Analysis of Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, and Compassion Satisfaction in Pediatric Emergency Medicine Physicians in the United States. Academic emergency medicine : official journal of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, 26(7), 732–743.
  • Hooper, C., Craig, J., Janvrin, D. R., Wetsel, M. A., & Reimels, E. (2010). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue among emergency nurses compared with nurses in other selected inpatient specialties. Journal of emergency nursing, 36(5), 420–427.
  • Peters E. (2018). Compassion fatigue in nursing: A concept analysis. Nursing forum, 53(4), 466–480.
  • Ruiz-Fernández, M. D., Ramos-Pichardo, J. D., Ibáñez-Masero, O., Cabrera-Troya, J., Carmona-Rega, M. I., & Ortega-Galán, Á. M. (2020). Compassion fatigue, burnout, compassion satisfaction and perceived stress in healthcare professionals during the COVID-19 health crisis in Spain. Journal of clinical nursing, 29(21-22), 4321–4330.
  • Schmidt, M., & Haglund, K. (2017). Debrief in Emergency Departments to Improve Compassion Fatigue and Promote Resiliency. Journal of trauma nursing : the official journal of the Society of Trauma Nurses, 24(5), 317–322.
  • Smith, P. (2012a) Alleviating compassion fatigue before it drags down productivity [PDF]. Long Term Living.

Sleep and Shiftwork

sleep and shiftwork

The emergency department is open 24/7, meaning that most ED physicians experience shift work. Shift work means that service is provided around the clock, whether it be night or day. Though shift work is almost always part of the job description for an ED doctor, it may not always favour the wellbeing of the physician. Inspired by a classmate, who adopted the sleep cycle of an ED early on in his M1 year, I wanted to discuss the science of sleep, the impact of shift work and how can we improve sleep hygiene when shift work is part of our job.

Basic Science of Sleep?

Sleep is part of every human being’s existence, as we could not live without it. Even though we have limited recollection of what happens during sleep, the process is quite complex. First, sleep latency is the time needed to fall asleep. Second, sleep is broken down into four stages that we oscillate through 4-5 times a night. The time it takes to go through all stages in a sleep cycle is approximately 90-120 minutes. The four stages we must pass through are called stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, respectively. Stage 1 through 3 is collectively called non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM).

Stage 1 is the lightest stage of sleep and the first one we enter from wakefulness and is characterized by theta waves (4-7 Hz) on an EEG. Stage 2 is a deeper sleep and the period where we spend most of our time sleeping. It is characterized by theta waves, sleep spindles and k-complexes. Finally, stage 3 is known as slow-wave sleep, where delta waves predominate the EEG (0-4 Hz). Finally, after the three NREM stages, we enter REM sleep. REM is the deepest stage of sleep, despite the EEG activity being the closest to waking state. It is during REM sleep that we experience vivid dreams and have low muscle tone.

So why is sleep important?

First, there is a growing body of evidence that slow-wave sleep is when we store memories. Therefore, through proper sleep, we can consolidate memories, increasing retention of what we had learned the previous day. Moreover, sleep is important in our ability to regulate our emotions and respond appropriately to different circumstances. In addition, when we get proper sleep, we are more like to be in a positive mood, which can impact our patient interactions. Furthermore, sleep is important in immune regulation and the ability to fight off infection. Finally, sleep helps with muscle recovery and favours protein anabolism (growth). I personally believe that muscle recovery is important given the time spent on one’s feet during an ER shift. This theory of sleep and muscle recovery has been supported in sports medicine literature, and I am intrigued to see if this evidence also existed for ED Physicians and other medical specialities that are more physically demanding.

Shift work in health care workers

So, what happens when we don’t sleep? First, shift work and lack of proper sleep increase levels of fatigue and errors made by health care workers. This can have profound implications on patients, especially in the ED, where the severity of presentation is often greater than in other clinical environments. This is also alarming, given that shift workers tend to have a reduced total amount of sleep. This reduced amount of sleep most commonly impacts stage 2 NREM sleep and REM sleep, thus reducing the quality of sleep, in addition to the duration of sleep. This reduced sleep quality is worse in shift workers on a rotating shift schedule, compared to a nighttime or daytime only worker.

Moreover, in some studies of ER workers, the duration of sleep, especially REM, is less during the day then at night. So even if one believes they are still getting sleep, it may be of reduced quality. Some explanations for this diminished REM sleep during the day is the body’s natural response to a light-dark schedule and the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Melatonin is the sleep hormone, which often rises at nighttime when it is time to go to bed. Sunlight inhibits the release of melatonin, signalling our bodies that it is time to be awake. So, even if one tries to sleep in a dark room, the walk home from a shift or exposure to hospital lights may confuse the circadian clock, diminishing sleep quality. Finally, other studies have reported that shiftwork could increase cardiovascular disease risk, blood pressure, increase levels of stress and cause gastrointestinal issues. In women, shiftwork can cause fertility problems, such as premature birth and low-birth-weight infants.

How to combat some of the negative effects of shiftwork

Individual Strategies

There are many things we can do to manage our sleep quality and scheduling. For example, our sleep environment can be adjusted to maximize our sleep quality. Strategies can include the use of earplugs and ensuring a dark room devoid of as much light as possible. Additionally, sunglasses can be worn to and from a night shift, to avoid daylight, which may signal to our body the biological start or end of a day.

Organizational Strategies

While some of the individual strategies may be useful to improve sleep hygiene with a shift work schedule, I also believe that some strategies should be implemented at the institutional level. For example, there is a body of literature which discusses that shifts longer than 12 hours are the most detrimental to sleep quality and a physician’s health. Moreover, the duration and timing of a break during a shift could help reduce some of the symptoms of shift work. Longer breaks during a shift are favoured, though the reasons why the longer breaks are better for sleep hygiene are unknown. Finally, scheduling strategies should be implemented. A paper by Burgess, has suggested that shifts be organized in a clockwise manner. For example, on performs a morning shift, then evening shift and a night shift etc. Moreover, morning shifts should not start earlier than 8:00 A.M. to favour our natural circadian rhythm. Issues with this approach are that multiple physicians work in an emergency department, many with families and different lives, which may prefer different schedules. Another issue is when a physician is sick, and another substitutes in. This could throw off the sleep schedule of both the physician cancelling and substituting the shift. Furthermore, is there an ideal number of days between shifts? Should this change with physician age knowing how melatonin levels decrease and the body becomes less resistant to stressors with ageing. While there are currently no gold standards with sleep regulation and shiftwork, we should at least be aware of why this is important and be mindful of our practices. It is easy to neglect our health in favour of our careers, something I have been all too familiar with and hope to improve.


I would like to end this article with a few comments about sleep. While the published literature may not tell a complete story due to the publication bias, there are a few things we can take away. Sleep is essential for our health and mental wellbeing. Shiftwork cannot be avoided, and, if self-care is not practiced, lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on our body and wellbeing. The impact of shiftwork on everyone can be different. Therefore, individual strategies to advocate for personal health is important. Organizations have a role in fostering an environment that supports good sleep habits and employee health. Finally, medical schools and residency programs should incorporate time to educate students on sleep hygiene and hopefully, inspire students to be agents of change in their own hospitals, thus fostering wellness practices. I look forward to joining you next time while I talk about imposter syndrome in medicine.

References and Further Reading

  • Burgess P. A. (2007). Optimal shift duration and sequence: recommended approach for short-term emergency response activations for public health and emergency management. American journal of public health, 97 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S88–S92.
  • Dall’Ora C, Ball J, Recio-Saucedo A, Griffiths P. Characteristics of shift work and their impact on employee performance and wellbeing: A literature review. Int J Nurs Stud. 2016;57:12-27. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2016.01.007
  • Dattilo M, Antunes HK, Medeiros A, et al. Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Med Hypotheses. 2011;77(2):220-222. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2011.04.017
  • Gruber R, Cassoff J. The interplay between sleep and emotion regulation: conceptual framework empirical evidence and future directions. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2014;16(11):500. doi:10.1007/s11920-014-0500-x
  • Halson SL, Juliff LE. Sleep, sport, and the brain. Prog Brain Res. 2017;234:13-31. doi:10.1016/bs.pbr.2017.06.006
  • Ibarra-Coronado EG, Pantaleón-Martínez AM, Velazquéz-Moctezuma J, et al. The Bidirectional Relationship between Sleep and Immunity against Infections. J Immunol Res. 2015;2015:678164. doi:10.1155/2015/678164
  • Kuhn G. Circadian rhythm, shift work, and emergency medicine. Ann Emerg Med. 2001;37(1):88-98. doi:10.1067/mem.2001.111571
  • Marshall L, Helgadóttir H, Mölle M, Born J. Boosting slow oscillations during sleep potentiates memory. Nature. 2006;444(7119):610-613. doi:10.1038/nature05278
  • Paller KA, Voss JL. Memory reactivation and consolidation during sleep. Learn Mem. 2004;11(6):664-670. doi:10.1101/lm.75704
  • Qureshi, S., Karrila, S., & Vanichayobon, S. (2018). Human sleep scoring based on K-Nearest Neighbors. Turkish Journal of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, 26(6), 2802-2818.
  • Sack RL, Lewy AJ, Erb DL, Vollmer WM, Singer CM. Human melatonin production decreases with age. J Pineal Res. 1986;3(4):379-88. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-079x.1986.tb00760.x. PMID: 3783419.
Cite this article as: Brenda Varriano, Canada, "Sleep and Shiftwork," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, November 30, 2020,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

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Exercise is Medicine

Exercise is Medicine


I strongly believe that exercise is medicine. Exercise has been proven to improve cognitive functioning, reduce burnout rates, and support sound mental well-being. However, developing an exercise regimen can be difficult, especially in a demanding academic program such as medicine where time is limited, or after a long shift in the emergency department (ED). Some common barriers to exercise reported in published studies include lack of time and laziness. Though laziness was the term used in these research studies, I prefer fatigue or burnout. Many classmates and colleagues I know, that do not work out, work themselves to the bone, therefore limiting the excess energy available for working out. While I have yet to experience the fatigue of a long ED shift, I have experienced long workdays, and for me, no matter how tired I am, a quick work out can always help me get back into the zone, feel more productive or improve my mood.  

In university students, physical activity has been linked with decreased rates of burn-out, decreased perceived stress, and higher academic performance. As mentioned in my previous post, burnout is not good for physician performance. Burnout can increase the risk of medical errors, and more importantly, reduce the patient-physician experience. Imagine attending an event with a group of friends or colleagues. Would you be drawn to those who are happy, energetic, and lively; or would you rather spend your time with someone who seems so tired and disengaged, someone who keeps asking you to repeat yourself or do not respond to your social cues in an appropriate manner. I would prefer the former, though I have experienced the latter, and do not want to become victim to compassion fatigue because I could not support my own health and wellness. Compassion fatigue, a term I recently learned, is an inability to empathize or show compassion to others due to physical or mental burn out.

Overall, I believe that exercise is important to support one’s health and avoid compassion fatigue or other signs of burnout. However, when it comes to incorporating exercise into your daily routine, there is no one size fits all. The goal of this article is to share three of my favorite styles of exercise, that can be short and effective if done at a proper intensity. At the end of the article, I will have a list of YouTube Channels that provide free workouts, that I am using during COVID-19 as I wait for the gyms to safely open. All these channels have some videos on Tabata, HIIT, and AMRAP training (described below). These can be shared with patients as well, if appropriate, knowing that at times, exercise can be one of the best forms of medicine out there.

Tabata – Named after the Man, the Myth, the Legend

Tabata training is named after the creator, Dr. Izumi Tabata, and his lab, located in Tokyo. Tabata is a specific form of high-intensity interval training. Each exercise (i.e. push-up) is performed for 4 minutes. Within each 4-minute block, the exercise will be performed for 20s with a 10s rest. Overall, the exercise will be performed 8 times in the 4-minute window frame. The workout can be tailored with as many exercises as one wishes. An example of a 16-minute full-body workout can look like the following:

  1. 4 minutes push-ups (20s on – 10s off x8)
  2. 4 minutes of body-weight squats (20s on – 10s off x8)
  3. 4 minutes of sit-ups (20s on – 10s off x8)
  4. 4 minutes of burpees (20s on – 10s off x8)

Don’t forget that exercises always have modifications. For example, if a lunge or squat hurts your knees or your legs are beat after standing in the ED for a long shift, then a wall sit can always be a substitute.

exercise is medicine

HIIT – High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT often gets mixed up with Tabata training. While they are very similar, HIIT is not as specific as the Tabata framework. HIIT training is similar in which you perform an exercise at a high intensity for a given amount of time followed by a rest period. The rest is important to prevent injury and give your body time to recover from the previous spurt of exercise. There are two ways this can be incorporated:

  1. One exercise at a time (rest in between every single exercise)

For this style of HIIT, you perform one exercise, the work period, and then rest, the rest period. I remember when I used to run or bike, I would start with a 1:2 ratio of work to rest (30 second sprint, 1 minute rest), and slowly work to a 1:1 ratio (30 second sprint, 30 second rest). The example I gave was a form of cardio, but the principles can apply to weights. For example, bicep curl for 2 minutes and rest for 2 minutes. Squat for 30s, rest for 30s.

  1. A series of exercises with rest after the series

In this second form of HIIT, you perform a series of exercises, as shown in the example below, and only rest after completing the entire series. The duration of the exercise time for each exercise is variable, but the entire series is usually the same.

AMRAP – As Many Reps as Possible

In AMRAP exercises, you pick one or two exercises and alternate between the two, until the timer tells you it’s time to rest. For example, say you choose squats and lunges (12 reps each) for the exercises, and you pick a 4-minute work period, then you would alternate between 12 squats and 12 lunges until the 4 minutes had passed. You then rest and can repeat with the same two exercises, or two new exercises for as many rounds as you wish. I love this style because you feel like you got an awesome workout in such a short period of time! It was the closest thing I could get to a runner’s high when I couldn’t run, and I could usually do a shorter workout, and feel satisfied. For the timer, I like the website linked below, which allows you to play with the number of intervals and the work/rest periods. The best part is it’s free and provides audio alerts to let you know when the work or rest period is complete.

Here is an example of a workout I put together this summer. After working out, I always found myself to be more productive during the day.

Note: Reverse lunges reduce strain on knee compared to forward. Also, all channels have low impact workout options.

AMRAP #1 (2-minutes each round + 1-minute rest in between; Repeat series #1-8 workout twice)

  1. Air squats
  2. Plank
  3. Reverse lunge left leg
  4. Reverse lunge right leg
  5. Push-ups
  6. Sit-Ups
  7. Calf Raises
  8. Glute bridge

How to increase the intensity of an exercise: 

  1. Increase the number of reps
  2. Increase the speed of an exercise (make sure form is intact)
  3. Add resistance (weights, bands)
  4. Decrease the rest duration
  5. Perform moves that focus on more than one muscle group

Closing Remarks

I hope you learned a bit more about the three styles of exercise described above. They can be done with or without equipment and can be structured based on your goals. I know I would use a quick ten-minute bout of exercise in between a long spurt of studying whenever I would notice my mental fogginess causing careless errors or diminish my quality of work.  

While I encourage exercise as medicine, I also support a healthy mindset; do not hate yourself if you miss a workout, do not hate yourself if a workout is too hard, do not hate yourself if you need to rest. We are all human. Importantly, we are using our time and energy every week in school to study or in the ED to make sure that we can rapidly diagnose, treat and decide what the next steps in a patient care plan are. This takes energy, and so we need to make sure we use exercise to increase our wellbeing, not inch closer to burn out. My mentor, who is an ED physician in Toronto Western, always told me that the moment you don’t have the time or energy to exercise and socialize with loved ones is the moment you are starting to enter burnout territory. 

Finally, inspired by a classmate, I would like my next article to focus on the impact of shiftwork on sleep hygiene and health, in addition to tactics to overcome the detrimental effects of shiftwork on sleep. Send me a message if you want different wellness topics to be discussed. I am always open to feedback. I look forward to learning alongside the iEM community. Happy exercising!

References and Further Reading

  1. Al-Drees A, Abdulghani H, Irshad M, et al. Physical activity and academic achievement among the medical students: A cross-sectional study. Med Teach. 2016;38 Suppl 1:S66-S72. doi:10.3109/0142159X.2016.1142516
  2. Alexandrova-Karamanova, A., Todorova, I., Montgomery, A., Panagopoulou, E., Costa, P., Baban, A., Davas, A., Milosevic, M., & Mijakoski, D. (2016). Burnout and health behaviors in health professionals from seven European countries. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 89(7), 1059–1075.
  3. Costa, E. C., Hay, J. L., Kehler, D. S., Boreskie, K. F., Arora, R. C., Umpierre, D., Szwajcer, A., & Duhamel, T. A. (2018). Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training Versus Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training On Blood Pressure in Adults with Pre- to Established Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.)48(9), 2127–2142.
  4. Cuthill, J. A., & Shaw, M. (2019). Questionnaire survey assessing the leisure-time physical activity of hospital doctors and awareness of UK physical activity recommendations. BMJ open sport & exercise medicine5(1), e000534.
  5. Pereira, E. S., Krause Neto, W., Calefi, A. S., Georgetti, M., Guerreiro, L., Zocoler, C., & Gama, E. F. (2018). Significant Acute Response of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Following a Session of Extreme Conditioning Program Is Correlated With Volume of Specific Exercise Training in Trained Men. Frontiers in physiology9, 823.
  6. Rao, C. R., Darshan, B., Das, N., Rajan, V., Bhogun, M., & Gupta, A. (2012). Practice of Physical Activity among Future Doctors: A Cross Sectional Analysis. International journal of preventive medicine3(5), 365–369.
  7. Vankim, N. A., & Nelson, T. F. (2013). Vigorous physical activity, mental health, perceived stress, and socializing among college students. American journal of health promotion : AJHP, 28(1), 7–15.
  8. Wewege, M., van den Berg, R., Ward, R. E., & Keech, A. (2017). The effects of high-intensity interval training vs. moderate-intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity18(6), 635–646.
  9. Wolf MR, Rosenstock JB. Inadequate Sleep and Exercise Associated with Burnout and Depression Among Medical Students. Acad Psychiatry. 2017;41(2):174-179. doi:10.1007/s40596-016-0526-y
Cite this article as: Brenda Varriano, Canada, "Exercise is Medicine," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, September 28, 2020,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

The Importance of Wellness in Medicine – My Story and Introduction to a Series of Blog Posts

wellness in medicine

Either be the light in the room or the mirror that reflects it

I always believe that going to work means putting personal issues aside. As physicians, we have a role to make every patient feel welcome, cared for, and heard. However, being in the ER can be stressful. Not only can stress impact our job performance, but it can increase the burnout rate. So begs the questions; how you handle stress, why is it important and what happens when you lose your main source of stress reduction, is there a back-up plan. For my wellness series, I hope to discuss my own experience of losing my main outlet for stress so you know who I am and why I am writing about this topic, the importance of physical fitness, effective quick workouts for a busy ED lifestyle, and a favorite topic of mine, imposter syndrome. As medical students, aspiring ED physicians or an ED physician, I believe we have a role to protect our own health, so that we may best support our patients. 

As medical students, aspiring ED physicians or an ED physician, I believe we have a role to protect our own health, so that we may best support our patients.

brenda - who I am

My name is Brenda-Maricela and I have just finished my first year of medical school at Central Michigan University as an international student, having done all prior education in Canada. While, academically, I had performed well in medical school, mentally, I was burnt out. It is not that I was not used to difficult schoolwork, I had graduated from the University of Toronto, where I was quite accustomed to immense workloads, working part-time jobs and juggling extra-curriculars. It was the fact that I had no outlet for my stress.

You see, prior to medical school, my outlet would be running. I was a modern-day Forest Gump. I craved the long runs that would allow me to shake off any stress I was holding onto. The longer the run the better. I was addicted. During my MSc, I was training with the University of Toronto Triathlon club, running road races and trying to win my age group and felt I could face any challenge that crossed my path. However, I would never have anticipated that I would not be able to run for 2 years. 

In the summer of 2018, I recall the moment where I was getting off of a chair at a conference. I felt a twinge in my right knee but thought nothing of it. I had a minor limp, but nothing too severe. A week later the pain grew, and before I knew it, I was in the ER. “I believe you have Patellar Femoral Pain Syndrome,” the doctor told me while reviewing my X-Rays. Patellar Femoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS) is a clinical term to define anterior knee pain, which often shows no structural damage in imaging.

brenda ER

It is most common in female athletes, and given the multifactorial nature, there is no single treatment. However, it often resolves with physical therapy and reducing activity. Reading about PFPS is one thing, experiencing it is a nightmare.

What would I do without running? The most common advice that I had received was to switch to biking and swimming, something which was a lower impact. These strategies worked, but as time had waned on, my knees became worse and soon, even the pool became a source of pain. I was in a rut. I would do anything to get the endorphins, but nothing would suffice. I would do anything to run again, let alone kneel in a yoga class. I saw multiple doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors and each time, I got the same diagnosis and was told it would resolve on its own.

Spring 2019, I got the phone call informing me of my acceptance to medical school. It was something I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. On one hand, I was ecstatic, but on the other hand, I was drained, depressed and couldn’t look at a jogger on the roads without feeling a sinking feeling in my stomach. How on earth was I going to get through medical school? During my undergraduate degree, I had exercising to sharpen my mind and combat stress. I knew medical school would be intense. How would I deal with the stress? What if my knee got worse? I would be in a new country, without friends and family. Would I draw too much attention if I limped, sat all the time, didn’t participate with social outings? I almost wanted to defer a year. However, my father and biggest mentor reminded me that I had managed to get through the application process without my exercises, perhaps studying would be a good distraction.

My father was right about studying being a distractor. At times, I would be so focused on learning the content, that I forgot about the pain. Other times, my brain would be so fried that I needed a distraction. But what could I do? Sitting for so long, my body craved movement, but my knees would be hesitant. During this time, I did educate myself on other exercise styles such as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), or As Many Reps as Possible Workouts (AMRAP), both with weights, and both focusing on the upper body and core. I will discuss the concept of AMRAP and HIIT in my second article, where I talk about quick and effective workouts. I believe that a sound body and mind are critical to perform well and avoid burn out in, school, the ED and beyond. However, the busy lifestyle as a medical student or a physician may make the time a limiting factor. Therefore, short effective workouts may be of use, and I hope to share my research and experiences.

So, while AMRAP and HIIT didn’t replace running, it would provide some mental soundness on days when I felt particularly on edge. Over time my knees improved, and I owe thanks to some wonderful healthcare providers in Michigan. Unfortunately, while volunteering with Special Olympics in November 2019, I got a hockey-related injury to my knees, setting my progress back a few weeks. I was devastated. Mentally, I was fried, emotionally I was drained. However, the schoolwork was still there, and I had to study. So, what did I learn from November 2019 to present? I learned how important mental health and physical wellness is. This has been a topic among peers who lost their gyms due to COVID-19, thus experiencing a loss of an outlet for stress. Personally, I saw the difference that stress made in my productivity, wellbeing and ability to retain information. So, I started exploring different outlets, many of which will be discussed in upcoming articles.

Exercise is still my favorite outlet, and I think it should be a part of a daily regimen. So, for my next two articles, I will discuss different styles of exercises and free resources I discovered on the web, such as timers, YouTube Channels and websites. Following my articles on exercise and fitness, I would like to dive into the science of yoga. I remember being told about traditional meditation, however, I found that my mind was too busy, and ironically, meditation caused me stress. Many of my ED-oriented friends similarly need to keep mentally busy, and one had recommended yoga as an active meditation. This being said, traditional mediation is effective, and my ED mentor loves it. Therefore, meditation will be discussed, most likely through research and interviews with those who have benefited from it. Finally, I intend to write about imposter syndrome. A lack of self-love can be a mental stressor. If we can learn to love and appreciate all that we have accomplished, I believe that the stress will go down. To show some self-love sounds simple but is often something that so many medical students struggle with. I know I question my own acceptance into medical school, being my own worst critic.

To conclude this article, I want to say I am passionate about medicine, and in seeing my colleagues succeed. Given my enthusiasm for exercise, and having done some personal training in the past, I am eager to share all I know. Maybe I’ll be running when I write my next article. If not, I know there are alternatives, and I hope what I share can be of use to my colleagues around the world. As I tell my friends, even if life clips your wings, just know you have all it takes to fly.

References and Further Reading

LaDonna KA, Ginsburg S, Watling C. “Rising to the Level of Your Incompetence”: What Physicians’ Self-Assessment of Their Performance Reveals About the Imposter Syndrome in Medicine. Acad Med. 2018;93(5):763-768. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000002046

Moukarzel A, Michelet P, Durand AC, et al. Burnout Syndrome among Emergency Department Staff: Prevalence and Associated Factors. Biomed Res Int. 2019;2019:6462472. Published 2019 Jan 21. doi:10.1155/2019/6462472

Petersen W, Ellermann A, Gösele-Koppenburg A, et al. Patellofemoral pain syndrome. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 2014;22(10):2264-2274. doi:10.1007/s00167-013-2759-6


Cite this article as: Brenda Varriano, Canada, "The Importance of Wellness in Medicine – My Story and Introduction to a Series of Blog Posts," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, August 17, 2020,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

Who Takes Care of You While You Take Care of Others?

Who Takes Care of You While You Take Care of Others

The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways that sometimes it is difficult to remember how life was without all these changes. We got used to the “new normal”, which includes a constant concern about contamination, economic crisis, and isolation. When we consider emergency physicians and other healthcare professionals, technical and scientific challenges regarding the pandemic response are also added to the equation.

Recently we completed three months since the first case of COVID-19 in Brazil and, since then, more than 300.000 have been infected and at least 23.000 people have died. These astonishing numbers could be 8 to 10 times higher if it wasn’t for under-notification¹ in countryside areas. The psychological effect of these numbers can be seen every day while people try to cope with the situation, and it may be even more intense in those who are in the frontline of the healthcare system. With this in mind, the question emerges: Who takes care of you while you take care of others?

What are the major psychological symptoms we can expect in healthcare providers three months into the COVID-19 pandemic?

After 3 months of COVID-19, we are not dealing with acute and immediate psychological response anymore; this next phase can be called assimilation, where we already understand better the new workflows, protocols and forms of living. However, we are still in a context of insecurity, fear, and loss of control over things we used to know how to deal with. The major psychological symptoms that are expected and considered to be normal in this context are:2

  • Fear (of getting sick and dying, losing people, being socially stigmatized, being separated from people you care about and transmitting the virus to other people);
  • Stress reactions such as anger, anxiety, confusional states, apathy
  • The recurrent feeling of impotence, irritability, anguish, and sadness;
  • Behavioral changes: changes in appetite and sleep habits, and interpersonal conflicts

Which strategies we can use to minimize these effects?

It’s very important to understand these reactions as being normal reactions in the context we currently live in. However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do to ease them. It’s very important to intervene as early as possible as a way to prevent the chronification of those symptoms and progression to psychological disorders. Here are some strategies that can help2:

  • Recognize these feelings and accept them as real and valid; try to talk about them with people you trust
  • Think back to the strategies and tools you used in moments of crisis in the past. When it comes to dealing with difficulties, everybody has some preferred methods, which were tried and worked. Resume those actions that have worked for you and try to find ways of applying them to this new context
  • Keep your social network active by establishing -even if virtual- contact with family, friends, and colleagues,
  • Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed; look for information only from reliable sources
  • Avoid using alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms
  • Ask for help if you find your strategies inefficient

There are lots of health professionals who are self-isolating from their families to prevent “bringing the enemy home”. How can self-isolation affect our mental health?

Isolating from family and friends means physically isolating from your support network. It’s relevant, in this context, to understand that physical isolation doesn’t mean affective and emotional isolation. As said before, it’s important to find new ways to be present in people’s lives and keep the social network active. Maintaining these contacts is also a way to ensure that when you leave the hospital and arrive at your rest place, you can actually disconnect from the routine and difficult times by talking to family members and listening about their day, their stories, and so on. In this moment of isolation and fear, we also witness the stigmatization of healthcare professionals3. People can direct their feelings of fear and uncertainty at health professionals, potentially causing behaviors of avoidance, rejection, aggressiveness and violence. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s key to understand that these reactions are not directed towards you personally, but to the global state of insecurity and fear, we are currently living.

Have you seen any changes in the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the physicians in the ED due to the stressed environment?

Interpersonal conflict, due to constant changes in protocols and workflows is expected in times of crisis and might be affecting problem-solving and decision-making processes. Here are some strategies to prevent it:

  • Try to maintain a supportive work environment, including designated spaces to eat and rest
  • Have moments to let the team talk about their mental state to help to develop a sense of community
  • Alternate workers between activities of high and low attention and tension, if possible,
  • Recognize effort made and encourage mutual respect among professionals
  • Map and disseminate mental health care actions. Even if most workers will not need individual assistance, knowing that there are services that they can rely on when needed makes them feel supported

Finally, do you have any special tips for emergency physicians who are in the frontline against COVID-19 at this moment?

It’s important to know and to understand when the frequency and intensity of the normal symptoms indicate that you should see a specialized mental health professional.2

  • Persistent symptoms
  • Intense suffering
  • Risk of complications, especially suicidal ideation and substance abuse
  • Significant impairment of social and daily functioning
  • Significant difficulties in family, social or work life
  • Major depression, psychosis, and PTSD are conditions that require specialized attention

We know that healthcare workers bear considerable suffering and symptoms, but usually, this group of people refuses to seek or receive help. Among others, the main reason is that having difficulties to deal with all the emotional demands is -wrongly- seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. At this moment, it’s more important than ever to understand that we can only take care of others if we, first, take care of ourselves. And taking care of our mental health is as important as our physical health to be at the front lines of COVID-19 response.

Gabriele H. Gomes

Psychologist, current Critical Care & Emergency Psychology Resident at Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre (HCPA)

References and Further Reading (Portuguese only)

Cite this article as: Arthur Martins, Brasil, "Who Takes Care of You While You Take Care of Others?," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, August 5, 2020,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

Why Me? The Story of My Burnout – Part 3

Why Me? The Story of My Burnout - Part 3

The story continues from link (Part 2).

I must take a deep breath. I must ask for help.

The Self-Knowledge Path

I could go away and work in another hospital. We have many good hospitals in Brazil. Some even employ emergency physicians who are local graduates. I really could. In truth, there would be no shame if I left the hospital. But I decided to give it one more try.

I just want to make clear that there is no single route back from burnout. It is a multifactorial treatment. You need emotional power. Some you may already have, or you can develop with a mental health specialist’s help. Some you will gather alone, or family and friends will help you to recover if you are lucky enough. Read, talk, discuss, and share with your community. You will never be alone because it is the system that is inflicting moral injury and burning you, and everybody, out.

Each person needs different means and tools to recover. We have to acknowledge that not everybody can afford all of them. Not everybody can pay for a therapist or even leave their work. I was one of the lucky ones. I could.

I promised myself and others that I would get better, and I wouldn’t give up. I felt obliged to improve the system that had harmed me. The system that made me afraid; afraid that I would fail.

It was not easy! It wasn’t “just not thinking about it.” It wasn’t “just a phase.” It wasn’t “just yoga.” It wasn’t “just wanting.” It was more than all the above. It took a long journey of self-knowledge: Who was I? What did I want? How could I achieve that?

Gradually, intertwined with relapses,​ the healing process began. I returned to therapy. Thanks to all support from my amazing friends, -virtual friends, present friends, distant friends- mentors, mentees, students, residents, followers, I was overwhelmed with affection and understanding. There were messages of encouragement everywhere I looked and listened. I did not plan this. It happened organically from across our community, and sometimes unintentionally, as I reached out to others, who always found time to help me.

Kindness can save a life! If you feel so, just go around saying how important people are in your life. I assure you that the kindness and positive comments of these people saved me.

I improved gradually in small steps. With empathy and determination, I took one step after another. Each step led me to find new perspectives. With each small victory​, I felt a small but important​ celebration in my heart​. ​

Yet, I wanted to make sense of it all. How to endure the moral injury? How to continue working here? I desperately needed to make sense of my job.

Why Me?

jule santos

In addition to therapy, I went on leave. I flew away and spent time in Mozambique, an LMIC, with many more difficulties, compared to Brazil. They were just beginning to develop the first emergency medicine residency program, and they had a lot more work to do. They were seemingly starting from scratch, and they had fewer resources than we had in Brazil. I found their enthusiasm and resourcefulness more inspiring than I thought possible.

It wasn’t because I could see how lucky we are in Brazil, but they did their best even though they were aware of their problems. I knew that there was no way that I could give up after seeing them.

I returned to Brazil, where people were eager to work with me. I felt they had missed me. They showed me that I made a difference.

I was fortunate to see my work environment improved. The administration had started to ‘get it,’ and now they cared about what we do. They realized that efficient systems saved money, so they were helping us achieve better care for our patients. Our department was renovated. They hired more people, and we got better medications. It all helped. It felt as though they were listening.

So recovering from burnout not only helped me to accept that problems are a part of the system but also made me realize people make the system. Therefore we can change it to accommodate our needs. Not the contrary. We need to END moral injury by addressing it and demanding solutions! We don’t need to be resilient to it!

In the beginning, I understood that I needed to be ​present​ in all my tasks, but that’s a challenge in the hectic world of emergency medicine. In truth, we are not as good at multitasking as we let ourselves think. However, we get better at prioritizing and scheduling tasks as we develop as clinicians. More importantly, we learn to give each task the proper time and attention it deserves.

As time passed, my most challenging feelings diminished. I redefined my responsibilities and my choices, redefined my motivation, my ambition, my purpose. I adjusted my expectations. I found a new power.

Then, ​gradually​, the love for Emergency Medicine and the energy to become the doctor I aspire came back. However, I still had to face my demons and deal with the most painful side of emergency medicine: Delivering bad news.

“Most of the time, the fact that you care is enough”​ is one of the most effective pieces of advice that I ever received. It helped me relieve the intense pain that I didn’t even know it was there. I still remind others and myself of it regularly.

For example, I dealt with the tragic case of pediatric cardiac arrest, brought in by another medical team. We did CPR over an hour, as this was a very delicate situation with a child. At the debriefing, I was careful with both teams from the other hospital and our own. Although I was worried about having the conversation I did, I was shocked and stunned to hear the reply. The doctor shrugged and said:

– Yeah, right. Can I go now?

He was in a rush. He didn’t even want to hear the debriefing. He didn’t appear to care! The disdain broke my spirit, and the whole team felt the same anger. It made everything harder to cope.

I took a deep breath, thanked the team for all the effort, asked them to prepare the body, and went to the waiting room to talk once again with the father. I had been there a lot of times, talking through everything as we were trying to resuscitate, so he already knew me, and immediately recognized my expression of bad news. I sat next to him and told him everything we did. I was trying to remedy the anguish while allowing time for understanding.

– There was nothing more we could do. I’m so sorry, but he died.

The father stared at the floor for a while.

– My wife is eight months pregnant. What should I do now?

He was in despair. Next came tears. I waited. Present. Then, he looked at me with honest:

– Thank you, doctor, for everything you did.

I will never forget them.

“Most of the time, the fact that you care is enough.”

I can’t stop people from getting sick. I can’t even guarantee who will survive, much less, meet the expectations of families. I can’t fix all the system by myself. Yet, I can show that we care, which is now my purpose and mantra.

Now, when I have to deliver bad news, I try my best to be there and look in the eyes. I patiently wait to make sure until there is no doubt. I don’t try to hide my feelings, ​and I finally feel I’m always telling the truth:

– We are doing everything we can.

I ensure that they know​ we care.​ I make a difference there. My pain eases as theirs alleviates even a little.

“Most of the time, the fact that you care is enough.”

I can’t stop people from getting sick. I can’t even guarantee who will survive, much less, meet the expectations of families. I can’t fix all the system by myself. Yet, I can show that we care, which is now my purpose and mantra.

Finding My Ikigai


Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” In English, the word roughly means “thing that you live for” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.” Each individual’s ikigai is personal and specific to their lives, ​values​ , and ​beliefs​. It reflects the ​inner self​ and faithfully expresses that, while simultaneously creating a mental state​ in which the individual feels at ease.

The thing I like most about ikigai is that it is for everyone. You have to understand yourself to achieve this deeply. Seeking self-knowledge can be the most challenging part.

– Am I doing something that I love?
– Am I doing something that the world needs?
– Am I doing something that I am good at?
– Am I doing something that I can be paid for?


So, where am I now?

Well, I still love heart attacks! I love the look of amazement of the interns when we save a life. I love the self-satisfaction of the residents when they can do something correctly for the first time. I love how happy the team gets when we can do perfect resuscitation. I love the peculiarities of each patient, their life, culture, and beliefs. I love to learn something new every day. ​And that’s why Emergency Medicine!

I love heart attacks! But when we can't save, when the system fails, when the patient dies but I feel that I softened the pain, even a little bit, by showing that we care, I know I can endure.

And that's why, me.

Cite this article as: Jule Santos, Brasil, "Why Me? The Story of My Burnout – Part 3," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, January 6, 2020,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

Why Me? The Story of My Burnout – Part 2

Why Me? The Story of My Burnout - Part 2

The story continues from link (Part 1)

I had already been tired and sad. Now, I was also feeling wronged.

The Dangers of Burnout

It meant that heart attacks stopped being exciting. I started to resent them as they now caused me to suffer. I have nowhere else to refer the patient, or the specialty doctors criticized me. 

They mistreated me, perhaps because of a lack of trust, or they too were damaged by the system. Maybe it was about payments and expenses. I did not know, but the effort of constant fighting was exhausting.

The system hit me hard. It was clear: irritation, stress, discontent, three quarrels with my team and my superiors in one week. I was burned out. That was putting my good work at risk.

Sad person

I felt like everything I was doing was meaningless. I aspired to become the best possible doctor through studying, traveling and sharing, but I always returned to the conditions that made me feel that all was in vain. My stagnant environment was full of burnout people, unjust deaths and endless problems regarding insufficient resources versus higher and higher demand.

That saddest thing in medicine is a doctor without hope.

I felt that each patient brought more pain than joy, even when we had excellent outcomes. It made me sick. I felt like I had unlearned hope. To make matters worse, I could not contain these emotions.

One day a patient asked me, “Am I going to die, doctor?”

I had just seen the results. It suggested cancer, but what would happen now? We wanted an expert to lead him, necessitating an evaluation by the oncologist. Still, the oncologist would not see the patient until the biopsy result, despite the imaging strongly suggested cancer. That meant we had to ask the general surgeon to do the biopsy, but in return, he asked us to refer the patient to another surgical specialty, based on the location of the tumor. So we tried, but this type of specialist did not serve in our region.

The patient’s and our growing stress and conflict eventually led the general surgeon to do the biopsy, but the patient had to wait 30 to 45 more days for the result. Only then, he would be able to go back to the oncologist. When he did, tho oncologist asked us for phenotyping. One more week passed until we finally get the patient to oncology, only to be declared too sick for treatment.

I had experienced this so many times before. Meanwhile, patients were getting more sick, and repeatedly ended up in the emergency department, sometimes got admitted, only to treat infections or pain. In the end, they were sent by the internist to die in our emergency room. They could not do end-of-life care properly. I frequently talked to an enraged family, not because of cancer, but because they were led to believe there was a chance of treatment.

My opinion is that the problem wasn’t lying to the patient about cure cancer, but how often the system don’t even give them this chance of a fight, lying about a chance to treat, but in really being just harmful for everybody because disorganization, corruption, and for didn’t care.

We do not cure death. Ever.

Sometimes we can prolong life. We hope for a good life with meaning, so that they can enjoy some more years, months, weeks or days of celebration, and prepare their wishes for a decent death with their family.

My opinion is that this realization is important not only when we talk about cancer, but any condition, even like a heart attack. We do not cure death, ever.

Coming back to that new patient, the words and the questions bounced in my head:

– Am I going to die, doctor?
– Don’t think about it now. We will take care of you.

I don’t know what the patient saw in me. To me, It felt like lying. When I said we would do our best, it wasn’t me but the system lying. Even if we as emergency physicians or I as an individual did everything possible, I felt the system didn’t care. I knew the system could do better. What could I say when I knew that the journey I want for my patients is so unachievable in the system I work in. I no longer knew what to say under these circumstances, and I felt the patient recognized that in my soul.

I felt hurt, guilty, beaten, and bitter.

That saddest thing in medicine is a doctor without hope.

I never thought this could happen to me. Not with me! How could this happen to me? I was in love with Emergency Medicine! Wasn’t I?

I’d said a billion times how I loved Emergency Medicine and didn’t know how to live without it. I’d shared my passion, convincing others that Emergency Medicine was the answer. Now, it felt like Emergency Medicine was killing me. And worst, I felt that I was not doing good for my patients as my lies were hurting them.

I must take a deep breath. I must ask for help. be continued...

Cite this article as: Jule Santos, Brasil, "Why Me? The Story of My Burnout – Part 2," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, January 3, 2020,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

Why Me? The Story of My Burnout – Part 1

why me - the story of my burnout

This story starts like almost every other: I fell in love.

The thing is, I LOVE heart attacks!

I know this is a weird statement, maybe even a little ​overstated. I know that people can get uncomfortable when I say this. When I said it for the first time, full of enthusiasm and with sparkling eyes, my ex-fiance looked at me in a concerned and puzzled way: ‘Can you say that?​’ – He asked, wondering if it was appropriate for a doctor to say that they actually enjoyed the experience of people being so unwell.

Clearly, as a doctor, I have nothing against people. Quite the contrary, I unceasingly fight for them to survive and thrive. Yet the paradox is real, despite my battle to save my patients, I am so in love with heart attacks!

Why? Perhaps I love the puzzle behind it. When the patient arrives, I see the position of the body, the hand on the chest, fingers tightly pressed against the skin, the skin color, the sweating… I consider the nuances of pain types, the comorbidities, the risk factors… All are informing my judgment and decisions even before I get to look at the ECG.

I love knowing the diagnosis as it reveals itself. I love that I can treat it. And when it works, I’m the queen of my craft. The scores of survival game change. 1 for me, 1 for my patient, and 0 for the heart attack!

So that’s why you would see me so happy when a patient arrives in my ED. I love this feeling. I love this adrenaline rush that is emergency medicine and me! I love leading a code, guiding actions, organizing my team to the point of ROSC. I love that roaring energy that runs through the whole team as we effortlessly move to the next stage of resuscitation.

This is why I love Emergency Medicine.

Emergency Medicine is new In Brazil. The general assumption is that ED is where junior physicians serve until they choose another specialty or other specialists work to earn additional income. Until recently, working in the ED was a difficult job with no career advancement. So, when I realized that I was so in love with more than heart attacks that I could not leave my work as an Emergency Physician, people started to ask me, “Are you sure? Do you want to work forever in an ED in Brazil? What about when you get older? Don’t you think you will get tired and burned out?”

jule santos

I don’t think so. I reply, I love my job. When you love your job, you don’t ever get tired.”

How naive I was.

Emergency medicine is tough, sometimes even painful. Deaths, we can’t help. Diagnoses of incurable diseases. Bad news. The pressure to be good, perfect, productive. Adding to that, many of us work in corrosive health systems: The result? Emergency Medicine can burn you to your core.

Being in love​ with Emergency Medicine is enough to protect us?

Emergency Medicine can burn you to your core.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

I am a curious soul. While I learned more about emergency medicine, I discovered another world with worldwide Emergency Physicians, who could understand my difficulties and help me learn remotely from them. I fell in love again with #FOAMed.

Hearing the experiences of my colleagues from all around the world inspired me to travel and meet those people. I wanted to learn with them and to compare how Emergency Medicine is in those places.

I love #FOAMED

My newly found calling took me to Sydney in Australia, such a lovely country, which had beautiful and polite people, good public transportation, beautiful scenery, and even a public healthcare system too!

I was lucky enough to spend time in an excellent hospital in NSW. I witnessed them receiving a trauma patient and listened to them as they plan patient management. I was speechless. I felt a sudden sadness to the degree that I wanted to crawl back to my mother’s womb.

When I tell this story, people often react, “You don’t need fancy stuff to practice Emergency Medicine,” but it was not what I saw there. What was it? It wasn’t the video laryngoscopy. It wasn’t the infinite bougies and disposable LMAs. That’s true: The facilities in Australia were incredible and so much more were available than back home in Brazil. But it was still the people.

When the paramedic team arrived, the whole team discussed the patient plan. They were so courteous and respectful to each other, focused only on doing the best for the patient. They were excited about the case, energized, and happy for doing their best.

I’m not saying their life is easy. I’m not saying they don’t suffer moral injury. But I’m sure they don’t show ill-will to their peers and most importantly, to their patients. I want so badly to be able to do that kind of medicine, but the realization of this new health system made me feel envious and perhaps even hopeless. Their experience was so positively different from mine.


I spent the next day in my room, lying depressed in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what to do now: “How I would love to have that experience in my hospital!”

I thought a lot about what happened there. Why did it hit me so hard? I knew that not all hospitals were the same in Australia as some hospitals had problems and struggles like in Brazil. I already knew that we had hospitals in Brazil better than mine. Why did I feel so hopeless then?

Now, looking back, I can understand better. I was pushing my comfort zone further than I ever did in my entire life. I was discovering a lot about myself and my capabilities. I was achieving success through FOAM. And so, I saw my limitations, I strumbled in a deep Impostor Syndrome and lost some excellent opportunities. I was in such a fragile mindstate that I felt like the system was unfair to me.

Sad Clown

In my hospital, which is always overcrowded, I work with physicians that don’t have the mindset of Emergency Medicine. When a trauma patient arrives, it feels like a battle. Physicians challenge paramedics: ​“Why did you bring this patient here when we don’t have bed enough?”​ or​ ​“​we don’t have enough surgeons!” or “why does nothing here work?”

All too frequently, the team ends up shouting at each other.

I tried hard to spread the ideas and visions I was learning. One time, I asked for an ultrasound machine, my boss laughed in my face: “Where do you think you are?” Everybody seemed so consumed by pessimism and fatigue that they lost all hope.

I had already been tired and sad. Now, I was also feeling wronged. be continued...

Cite this article as: Jule Santos, Brasil, "Why Me? The Story of My Burnout – Part 1," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, December 30, 2019,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

Adventures on the Annapurna Circuit

For this blog entry, I want to share two issues I encountered while traveling in Nepal, just shy of my graduation from medical school: acute mountain sickness (AMS) and responding to a wilderness medicine incident as a medical trainee.

There is nothing more glorious

There is nothing more glorious than the period just after finishing medical school and before residency! For me, the highlight was being able to hike in Nepal. With the long travel time from Canada, and the multi-day itineraries most hikes necessitate, the post-grad period seemed like the ideal opportunity to make my dream of visiting the Himalayas come true.

Courtesy of Helene Morakis
Courtesy of Helene Morakis

I wrote my medical licensing exam, hopped on a flight and got ready to soak up the change of pace. While traveling, I found time to relax, (tried my best to) practice mindfulness and experienced the incredible kindness of Nepali people. Traveling was the perfect recharge that now has me geared up and excited for residency.

Annapurna Circuit

A few weeks before leaving for my travels, I began researching the Annapurna Circuit (APC). Having grown up at a staggering 240m above sea level in the Canadian prairies, I felt threatened by the Thorong La pass, which at 5416m is the highest part of the trek. My highest previous experience at altitude was 4200 meters, where I (unfortunately) developed Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). My history of having AMS and following a typical itinerary for the APC put me at moderate risk for AMS(1). I decided to heed the Wilderness Medicine Society’s recommendation to take acetazolamide 125mg every 12 hours as prophylaxis(1).

Table reproduced from Luks, A. M. et. al 2019

While on the trek, I overheard many myths about AMS and sensed a general reluctance to take acetazolamide as prophylaxis(2). Himalayan Rescue Association does free daily teaching about AMS on the APC in Manang and on the Everest Base Camp trek as well(3). As we moved to higher altitudes, many guest houses and Annapurna Conservation Area Project outposts had accurate information about AMS and its consequences (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and High Altitude Cerebral Edema). Surprisingly, despite this teaching and the availability of acetazolamide on the trail for purchase, there are still hikers that routinely require evacuation due to AMS, some by helicopter.

On the day before crossing the Thorong La Pass, I stopped for lunch with some trekking mates at Thorong Phedi (4538m). A few minutes passed before someone came into the guesthouse, visibly worried, requesting help from a doctor. It took me a few seconds (and my friends practically lifting me off my seat) to register that I could help! I was thankful to be hiking with an experienced nurse and we went to see the hiker together.

We were asked to see a fit hiker in his 60’s whose foot had been the victim of a rockslide. I clarified my training as a fourth-year medical student before asking details about the mechanism of injury and his past medical history. The hiker and his family were concerned and asked me to “rule out” a fracture. With positive Ottawa Ankle Rules findings, I wished for an X-Ray machine to rule out a clinically significant fracture(4). Keeping in mind there was no road access – the nearest road before the camp was in Manang (3500m, 15km away) or in Muktinath (3800m, 16km away) after the pass – the only ways out were by donkey or helicopter.

From a wilderness medicine standpoint, the injury was by all measures considered stable and the patient did not require an evacuation [reproduced from Isaac & Johnson 2013](5):

  • No deformity or instability on exam

  • No sense of instability reported by patient

  • Able to move and weight bear after accident

  • Distal circulation, sensation, movement (CSM) intact

  • Slow onset of swelling

  • Pain proportional to apparent injury

After a discussion with the patient, we decided that treating the injury as “stable” was reasonable and accepted the risk of delaying healing of a potential fracture. I recommended 24 hours of rest, ice (which kept the patient’s family busy fetching snow!), and elevation. I gave them ibuprofen to be administered on a regular schedule and instructed them to monitor CSM and plan an evacuation if there were any signs of impairment. I told the patient to continue the hike the following day if the pain did not increase with activity and to obtain medical follow up once they had returned to the city.

In hindsight, I recognized that I should have documented the encounter. I had written down the dosing of ibuprofen for the family, but I did not write a detailed SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment and plan) note. Properly documenting wilderness medicine encounters was a skill I learned in Advanced Wilderness Life Support. When we met the patient, he was generally well other than his foot injury. What if the patient’s condition worsened? What if the family forgot the plan in the stress of the situation?

I also found myself wondering about this patient long after I had left them. Reflecting upon this, I recognized that it is easier to “discharge” someone from an urban Canadian ED, where I have had most of my clinical experience because I know they can access good care if things change. The huge potential on the trail for loss to follow up made documentation much more vital in this case.

Later on, I pondered about the potential legal ramifications of helping this hiker. In Ontario, Good Samaritan laws protect health care professionals who provide first aid(6). From my understanding, there are no similar laws in Nepal, and there have been calls to define the rights and duties of those who witness or are requested to aid with an injury in the country(7).

In Nepal, I had a much-needed change of pace from medical school and plenty of time for reflection. I was inspired to see many organizations work together to educate guides, locals and hikers about AMS and hope to spend some time volunteering at the Himalayan Rescue Association in the future. Even after wilderness medicine training, being asked to provide first aid on the trail as a soon to be medical graduate caught me by surprise. I was happy to help and be able to have an approach to the patient in a low resource setting – and now recognize the importance of documentation.

I would like to hear your comments on this article: any experiences dealing with AMS, tips and tricks for musculoskeletal injuries in the wilderness setting, advice for navigating giving medical treatment outside of a hospital as a trainee or anything you would have done differently.

Courtesy of Helene Morakis


  1. Luks, A. M., Auerbach, P. S., Freer, L., Grissom, C. K., Keyes, L. E., McIntosh, S. E., … Hackett, P. H. (2019). Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Altitude Illness: 2019 Update. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.
  2. Kilner, T., & Mukerji, S. (2010). Acute mountain sickness prophylaxis: Knowledge, attitudes, & behaviours in the Everest region of Nepal. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 8(6), 395–400.
  3. Himalayan Rescue Association. (2019). [online] Available at [Accessed 30 Jun. 2019].
  4. Stiell IG, Greenberg GH, McKnight RD, Nair RC, McDowell I, Worthington JR. A study to develop clinical decision rules for the use of radiography in acute ankle injuries. Ann Emerg Med. 1992; 21:384–90.
  5. Isaac, J. E., & Johnson, D. E. (2013). Chapter 13: Musculoskeletal Injury. In Wilderness and Rescue Medicine (pp. 84–85). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
  6. Good Samaritan Act, Government of Ontario (2001). Retrieved from the Ontario e-Laws website:
  7. Pandey, S. (2014). Good Samaritans. [online] The Kathmandu Post. Available at: [Accessed 30 Jun. 2019].

Further Reading

Cite this article as: Helene Morakis, Canada, "Adventures on the Annapurna Circuit," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, July 12, 2019,, date accessed: April 18, 2021

Wellness Books For Medical Students

We recently asked FOAMed family!

Dear #FOAMed family. Which books are you recommending for medical students for wellness, wellbeing, life-work balance? @umanamd @EM_Educator @amalmattu @srrezaie @TracySansonMD @CriticalCareNow @SocraticEM @EM_RESUS @EMEducation @Core_EM @emcrit @EMSwami @ALiEMteam @EMManchester

— iem-student (@iem_student) April 9, 2019

Thanks to all FOAMed leaders and enthusiasts for their answers. We received fantastic book recommendations for our students.

Although some of the books are not directly related to wellness, their content indirectly guides you to be more competent, mindful, grateful, happy in order to reach your life long wellbeing.

Here are amazing recommendations through twitter responses! (alphabetical order)

  • Being mortal
  • Daring greatly
  • Deep survival
  • Deep work
  • Designing your life
  • Enjoy every sandwich
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • Extreme ownership
  • Factfulness
  • Getting things done
  • Grit
  • How to win friends & influence people
  • How will you measure your life
  • Ikigai
  • In shock
  • Inclusion and diversity in workplace
  • Leaders eat last
  • Man’s search for meaning
  • Mindset
  • No ego
  • Peak
  • Rigor mortis
  • The 7 habits of highly effective people
  • The power of habit
  • The upside of stress
  • When breath becomes air
  • Why we sleep

You can find exact twitter messages including authors of the books below.

Recent Top Reads…

1. Why We Sleep.
2. Peak.
3. How to Win Friends & Influence People.
4. The Power of Habit.
5. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
6. Being Mortal.
7. Extreme Ownership.

– and audiobook thats shiz, let someone else do the reading 🤓

— Tiarnán Byrne (@TiarnanByrne) April 9, 2019

For the mentioned theme: How Will You Measure Your Life by @claychristensen; No Ego by @CyWakeman; Designing Your Life; I know @akkalantari really likes The Upside of Stress by @kellymcgonigal (it’s on my read this year pile…)

— Rob Cooney, MD, MEd (@EMEducation) April 9, 2019

In Shock by Rana Awdish. When the doctor becomes a patient with a critical illness.

— Larissa Velez (@LvelezEM) April 9, 2019

I would say When Breath Becomes Air. Highlights our field’s purpose, the role of humanity within patient-doctor interactions, and the importance of how we choose to spend our numbered days and how it impacts our family.

— Brian Gilberti (@User238345) April 9, 2019

@stemlyns resuscitationist’s guide to wellbeing is particularly good.
Busy by Geoff Crabbe. (productive does not mean inbox zero)
Daring greatly @BreneBrown
Emotional agility Susan David

— Louise Rang (@RangLouise) April 9, 2019

Amazing book recommendations for wellness and beyond. I like to add DEEP SURVIVAL-Laurence Gonzales, FACTFULNESS-Hans Rosling, IKIGAI-H.Garcia & F.Miralles, GETTING THINGS DONE-David Allen.

— Arif Alper Cevik (@drcevik) April 10, 2019

It’s an awesome book about being grateful….

It’s amazing.

— Rob Rogers, M.D. 🎤🎧 (@EM_Educator) April 9, 2019

IMO every medical student should be required to read (or listen to audio-book) Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends & Influence People” before being allowed to graduate; this would make you a better physician than reading ANY medical textbook. I still re-read this every few years.

— Amal Mattu (@amalmattu) April 9, 2019

Grit @angeladuckw + Mindset – Carol Dweck
Not standard “wellness” books but, they teach us important lessons about learning to succeed after failure, being flexible in how we think that have greatly contributed to my inner balance

— Anand Swaminathan (@EMSwami) April 9, 2019

Reading “In Shock” now and will be recommending to my medical students.

— Haney Mallemat (@CriticalCareNow) April 10, 2019

Leaders Eat Last by @simonsinek ; Being Mortal by @Atul_Gawande ; Deep Work by Cal Newport; Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace by @jenniferbrown and Daring Greatly by @BreneBrown That’s just for this month. And Rigor Mortis-not a wellness book, but a must read. #FOAMed

— Kinjal Sethuraman (@KinjNS) April 9, 2019

This book helps put everything in life in perspective.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

— William F Toon (@wftoon) April 9, 2019

Everything happens for a reason @KatecBowler Because life and each day we get to have this relationship with our patients is a gift.

— Amber Bowman (@AmberLBowman96) April 10, 2019

Here is the full list, again!

  1. Being mortal
  2. Daring greatly
  3. Deep survival
  4. Deep work
  5. Designing your life
  6. Enjoy every sandwich
  7. Everything happens for a reason
  8. Extreme ownership
  9. Factfulness
  10. Getting things done
  11. Grit
  12. How to win friends & influence people
  13. How will you measure your life
  14. Ikigai
  15. In shock
  16. Inclusion and diversity in workplace
  17. Leaders eat last
  18. Man’s search for meaning
  19. Mindset
  20. No ego
  21. Peak
  22. Rigor mortis
  23. The 7 habits of highly effective people
  24. The power of habit
  25. The upside of stress
  26. When breath becomes air
  27. Why we sleep

Also Read!

Wellness Cards

We share the wellness cards including ACEP Wellness Recommendations.

Also Read!

Wellness Week

Dear students! This week is exceptional for all emergency medicine professionals. EMERGENCY MEDICINE WELLNESS WEEK (EMWW).

EMWW is created by ACEP to remind emergency physicians and their colleagues “we are human, we should take care of ourselves, self-renew, enjoy life.”

It is also crucial for medical students. Your health is most important! Taking care of yourselves is your priority. Therefore, eat well, sleep well and be physically active while you are in medical school. Learn healthy lifestyle now and apply it.

If you do not know and apply healthy lifestyles, how you can stay healthy, and more importantly, how you can convince your patients to change their lifestyle.

ACEP has many recommendations

We also recommend below post

Happy Wellness Week!

You can download and share below infographic cards on wellness

Cite this article as: Arif Alper Cevik, "Wellness Week," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, April 8, 2019,, date accessed: April 18, 2021