I am in the healthcare field. Throughout the past 25 years, I have witnessed a distressing trend in how individuals in medical and patient-centered health communities handle the rigors of arduous hours and heavy patient loads by using stress-relieving drugs. Many medical residents praise organ-transplant surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons and others in high-stress surgical specialties for their dedication to their work. Many wonder how these surgeons are able to cope and focus for hours and hours on end.
One such surgeon is my best friend from high school. We grew up together in Newport Beach, California, and formed a lifelong bond – many even thought we were brothers. He is Armenian and grew up in a family with sky-high expectations. Everyone from his father, uncles, sister and cousins were either doctors or lawyers. My best friend became an organ-transplant surgeon. He loved his work and felt a close kinship to his patients. Over cocktails at happy hour, he would describe performing an eight- to ten-hour liver transplant. He would be on his feet, hunched over the operating table, during the entire surgery.
As the hours became progressively longer and his patient load increased, he would often cope with the added stress by taking Xanax. I witnessed the dependence that developed from his use of this drug. He told me that Xanax helped him focus and helped him get into a “zone” when he was operating. He’d explain that his mind was so focused on what he was doing that he would lose all track of time. He soon fell into a spiral of using not only Xanax, but other drugs as well.
Transplant surgeons have a short “shelf life” compared with other physicians. A typical career runs from their mid-30s to mid-50s, and then transitions into less consuming careers such as research or teaching. Studies show rising levels of stress and burnout among physicians in general. According to the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, burnout rates among all doctors range from 37 to 53%, with surgeons being near the top of the list.
Burnout often generates feelings of depression and alienation. As in the case of my best friend, it can also lead to drug addiction. My friend’s burnout and his reliance on Xanax and other drugs took a slow and steady toll on him. He was despondent, and the focus he’d earlier in his medical career was lacking. That was the condition he was in when he received a big break.
My friend has a tight-knit family and an inner circle of close friends. Through an intervention, his family and I were able to convince him to seek addiction and rehabilitation treatment. Eventually, he was able to let go of troubling character defects, such as pride, which is a difficult task for a surgeon, especially one who has been successful all of his life.
Now in recovery, he is back in the operating room and has learned to manage his stress in positive ways. He spends quality time with his family and finds joy in yoga and music – things he previously felt did not warrant his time. Sobriety has given him back his career and a life worth living.
Help and support is within reach for you or a loved one battling addiction. Explore InRecovery’s national addiction treatment center directory now.