The Brink of Burnout

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Author: Ryan P. Gibney, MD

Originally published: Common Sense
March/April 2021

It definitely felt different this new year. The normal buzz around town, packed stores, twinkling lights, and family gatherings uncharacteristically muted as compared to years past. I noticed a profound change in the hospital starting in mid-November: the winter chill was ever present in the air, while families prepped for the upcoming holidays in uncertainty. It started as a trickle three or four critically ill patient’s per day—COVID and others—but quickly became evident that the levee holding back the flood of patients was about to break. Over the course of two weeks, I saw the volume expand from a few sick COVID patients to every other patient coming in at the brink of complete respiratory failure, clinging to each breath, struggling to speak any words. Time and time again, I would ask a single family member to say their goodbyes while I prepared airway equipment and counseled families and patients that I was concerned and this may be the last time they speak to their loved ones. Tears and fear filling the eyes of patients and their family, quivering lips hidden behind flimsy masks, screaming, and hand holding had become the pre-intubation ritual I was now performing countless times per day. It is incredibly difficult. 

We are practicing medicine in unprecedented times, and as I near the completion of my training, I worry for what’s to come. California, where I train, feels like it’s about to burst. Occasionally, I hear the panic of higher ups as another tent is erected, or field hospital is installed in the parking lot, or a diversion suspension order is enacted. What are we going to do? What else can we do? We have already converted pediatric hospitals to accept adult patients, our backup docs are working full schedules, our nurses are working double time, the ED functions as an additional ICU, and we are stretched to our limits with no end in sight. The emotional toll that this is waging on many of us is very concerning.

I feel that it’s important to be honest and vulnerable about my experience as I was totally blindsided by the feeling of burnout. I have always been resilient, and pride myself on being able to take everything in stride, and residency has been no different. I approached this journey with alacrity, humility, and perseverance. It has proven to be the most difficult, yet rewarding endeavor in my life. But, starting in April, there was a slow transition from a place of happiness, to one of uncertainty, then one of despair.

Returning from a conference in New York in early March, I watched in sadness as the city began to buckle under the sheer volume of critically ill patients, and grew fearful that this was a preview of what was to come for all of us. I saw my first sick COVID patient a week later and was truly shaken at how a seemingly normal, healthy young woman could decompensate right in front of my eyes—65-58-49-35%. I went home that day and reflected on how frightening this was, and I was worried about myself and my loved ones.

The shutdown in California began the following week, and my wife and I were now part-time teachers to our young daughter, all while trying to balance our work obligations. She worked in construction, so she had to go on job sites to coordinate, no one in masks, business as usual. I was concerned for her well-being and safety. I’m pretty sure she was downsized in April because of me and a letter she wrote about her concerns, especially since I would be on the COVID ICU and her coworkers had multiple comorbidities that made them high risk. We took it in stride and hoped for the best, but deep down I was worried.

By the time summer hit, it seemed like everything was getting a little bit better. Slowly things started feeling more normal, restaurants had outdoor dining spaces, stores had toilet paper again, we had one or two quarantine families we would occasionally see to break the isolation of lockdown, and the hospital calmed down a bit. I wondered, “Had we done it, did we beat this?” A new challenge arose in August. My wife, a college educated professional with ample experience in different fields, had been looking for a job every day with no response—sometimes 50 applications per day. Unemployment funding ended in late July and suddenly our two-income household was cut nearly in half. We tore through our savings, delayed paying some bills and used credit cards for others. I searched tirelessly for moonlighting gigs, but none were to be had. By the time we got to Halloween, we were really struggling.

I mention this because in retrospect it was a slow change that was occurring in me through little daily stresses that continued to pile up: financial, professional, physical, emotional. In early November, we started seeing more and more COVID cases. First, it was asymptomatic, younger patients but shortly it became the true surge we are seeing today. I remember seeing one or two, then four, then ten patients a shift that were critically ill. At first, it felt manageable, but quickly devolved into chaos and I found myself more hopeless about our current situation. I couldn’t help thinking about the loss of loved ones before the holidays, and the stress on the faces of everyone I work with, and the stress at home just trying to get by. It quickly became too much. I felt as if I was sinking farther and farther. I had never felt this way before, and it seemed like everything in my life was making it worse. I had reached the brink of burnout.

Burnout has been an increasing topic of discussion for physicians over the past several years. Propelled by the loss of autonomy and an unnatural tethering to a computer and an EMR system, we have seen the rate of burnout approach nearly 50% of physicians, and signs of burnout have been seen in residents and medical students alike.1,2 The advent of this pandemic has turned the health care system upside down and it is more important than ever to recognize signs of burnout and intervene. It is well established that burnout leads to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, patient safety issues, poor outcomes, lack of engagement, and more.2 Physician suicide rates, as well as the general public, have been rising at an alarming rate even more with the isolation of a pandemic.

In speaking with attendings who have gone through similar experiences, we discussed how the number of sick patients that we see every day in the current pandemic drives us to impassivity. We don’t have time to process our emotions as we move from one terrible situation to the next, and it is taxing. How do we care for the sick and their families and still find time to care for ourselves and each other. Right now, more than ever, is the time to check in on each other. Many of our colleagues are struggling to keep it together from shift-to-shift, day-to-day. In our program, we are taking action to make sure that we are all okay together. My fellow chiefs and I have started doing chief check-ins with our classmates in addition to creating a virtual wellness event complete with painting and a homemade meal prep kit for all of us to hang out and share some time together. It’s small, but it’s something.

In sharing this personal experience with others around me, and now on paper, it has been cathartic and I have refocused on the important things in my life and in my career. I never thought I’d be at this point and I was shocked at how slowly this transition occurs until one day you feel as if there is no going back. For me, recognition of what I was experiencing was the key to working through it, and the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a well established tool for early recognition of burnout in addition to others.2 I hope that sharing this, will remind us all to look to each other for support, and remember that one of the most important lessons in life is, that when you’re overwhelmed, tired, struggling, ask for help.


  1. Hartzband, P., MD, & Groopman, J., MD. (2020, December 31). Physician Burnout, Interrupted: NEJM. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from
  2. Singh, R., Volner, K., & Marlowe, D. (2020, November 15). Provider Burnout. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from
  3. West, C. P., Dyrbye, L. N., & Shanfelt, T. D. (n.d.). Physician burnout: Contributors, consequences and solutions. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from