“One of the residents that I was working with was yelled at once by somebody else because he had cried while giving a family bad news. I think everyone knows when you’re giving them bad news; it’s not like a big secret. You maintaining a great deal of composure doesn’t change that fact. I think that we’re allowed to be human. If we force ourselves not to be human or have any degree of human emotion, that’s obviously not putting us on the path to wellness and certainly if we force other people not to be human that’s not putting either them or us on the path to wellness.”
—Ilene A. Claudius, MD
Breaking bad news to patients and families is a fact of life for an emergency physician. More than 300,000 patients die in emergency departments each year from either traumatic or nontraumatic cardiopulmonary arrest, and an even greater number are diagnosed with a new life-threatening or life-altering illness, such as cancer, stroke, or traumatic brain injury.1 We stand at the front lines for these patients and families when they are first confronted with death or their own mortality. It is up to us at these moments, not their specialists or family physicians, to comfort and support them in a time of need. While intensely fulfilling at times, this type of demanding emotional support can also be incredibly draining in an environment that never sleeps and never stops moving.