How Doctors Mend Their Own Broken Hearts

TEDMED 2015: Daria Mochly-Rosen, Pamela Wible, Suzie Brown

Broken hearts are a longstanding theme in art, literature and music – and, perhaps surprisingly, in medicine. Doctors are no strangers to sadness, or to the fear and anxiety that accompany hectic lifestyles, failure and loss – a strain on their personal health and wellbeing. This is a thread that runs through the careers of three of our TEDMED 2015 speakers, for whom taking action motivated by their hearts proved transformative.

Drug Development Shepherd Daria Mochly-Rosen once thought the most difficult part of science was making important discoveries, such as her groundbreaking and potentially life-saving research on protein kinase C for heart disease. She learned, however, that the greater challenge was bringing her newly proven treatment to the real-world patients who needed it. “I was shocked to learn that there are more ways to fail than succeed and that it isn’t just a logical path,” she says. The SPARK program she created at Stanford to help others navigate the “valley of death” between drug discovery and development is now being implemented around the world.

Though her physician-parents warned her against pursuing a medical career, Pamela Wible paid no attention and followed her heart’s dream to become a doctor, which led to loss and heartache. Two doctors she dated while in medical school killed themselves. She also struggled with suicidal thoughts – becoming, in her own words, “obsessed with physician suicide.” “I know the wounds we carry – the wounds that were inflicted on us during our training by bullying, hazing and institutionalized abuse,” Pamela says, sharing a fantasy that, if she could clone herself, “that other me would be standing on hospital rooftops with suicidal doctors—coaxing them back inside. I’d be flying through windows at midnight to remove guns, scalpels, and pill bottles (kind of like the tooth fairy) from suicidal doctors while giving them each a hug, a kiss, and a prescription for reclaiming their lives.”

Suzie Brown, a singer-songwriter and cardiologist specializing in congestive heart failure/cardiac transplants at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, uses music as an antidote to the stoicism she maintains at work. A cardiology fellow at UPenn when she wrote her first song, expressing the heartbreak she felt when a relationship ended, she said “I just figured, ‘If I can’t write a song when I’m feeling like this, I never will.’” It was a profound experience. She’d always believed that as a cardiologist, “I had to be tough, I had to not show my emotions. This song was like the polar opposite. I’m telling people I’m lonely and that was, like, this amazing thing.” Suzie will soon release her third album, her first with husband Scot Sax. In Palm Springs in November, the two will give a vulnerable, evocative performance that’s expected to tug at our heartstrings.