I was at the height of my career. I had just been asked to be the chairperson for our department. I was happily married with two small boys. I loved my life. We had plans to travel, to buy a bigger house, to live the dream. Then it all changed.
I was called to the labor floor for a precipitous delivery. Baby number four. They should have fallen out. Instead, as I arrived, fetal heart rates were in the 50s. My patient was complete and climbing up the bed. Too late for an epidural, the nurses and I coaxed her into position as I applied a vacuum to the baby’s head.
As I was guiding the baby out, my patient kicked me. It felt like a direct hit to my brachial plexus and my left arm went numb. I felt tears well in my eyes but I still had a baby to deliver. I turned my body, hoping to protect myself. Unfortunately, a second kick occurred and I knew something was wrong. The baby was safely delivered, the nurses took over and I went to the emergency department.
Fast forward – I had a torn labrum which I was told would heal. I had steroid injections and cancelled surgeries for a month. I started losing range of motion. The pain worsened. It felt like no one believed me. I was figuring out how to compensate during exams, deliveries and surgeries when I restarted.
I knew something was not right. However, our profession is tough! Many doubted me openly and behind my back. I started to question myself. The tyranny of perfection that exists in medicine is real. We all know physicians who have come to work sick, in pain, or undergoing treatment for illnesses when we would have insisted that our patients rest and recuperate.
When I was finally diagnosed with a frozen shoulder several months later, I felt validated. I would need surgery to get back to myself. Unfortunately, after surgery, I continued to have significant range of motion deficits and chronic pain which would preclude me from performing the tasks for which I had spent the better part of my life training.
Before the surgery, my last day as a clinician, I could not get my left arm to do what I needed it to do and realized that I could not practice safely or ethically.
What now? I was in pain, I lost my identity, I had a family to help support. I was the primary breadwinner. Hours of physical therapy and mental therapy ensued. My husband thought we’d be okay financially, as we had prepared. I had a private disability policy, we had a group long term disability (GLTD) policy at work, and this was a workers’ comp case.
We were shocked when we realized that we were not as prepared as we thought. First, the group benefit that I thought I had, in fine print, did not cover work related injuries. I was flatly declined and told I would have been better off had I fallen off my bicycle.
While that is the exception to the rule as far as GLTD policies go, I am seeing it more and more since COVID started. I am seeing policies that won’t cover work related injuries or illnesses. Second, workers’ comp initially declined my case. They said that, while my injury occurred, my frozen shoulder was idiopathic or my fault because I continued to work while injured. I had to sue for my benefit.
Fourteen months and three court appearances later, I settled. I couldn’t take it anymore. During my case, it was suggested that I could be a billing secretary because I had the aptitude to learn codes. By the way, workers’ comp varies by state. In PA, it maxes out at $3,500 a month.
Third, I found out that my private IDI was not as strong as I thought. I had two policies – one was truly specialty specific while the other was not. Thankfully, we had an emergency fund and my flight nurse husband could pick up more shifts while we were waiting for everything to work out.
It was a horrible thought to think that my family would’ve been better off financially had I died, instead of becoming disabled.
I have to admit that the loss of my identity was the hardest part. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere; not with my working mom friends, not with my SAHM friends. My physician friends were some of the toughest. I like to think that they meant well, but hearing things like “You should be happy to be out of medicine,” “Kick me in the shoulder if it means I can stop working,” would reduce me to tears.
Even worse were the naysayers, “you really can’t do your job anymore?” Or, “it’s just your shoulder.” Trust me, if I could do it safely, I would! It wasn’t like I was home taking tennis and golf lessons. Chronic pain is horrible. Limited range of motion is a problem. I couldn’t lift up my four-year-old, let alone do other activities I used to enjoy.
I had to reinvent myself. Find new hobbies. Find new passions. I still wanted to practice. I missed the operating room. It was really hard. I felt alone. Thankfully I knew a couple of other physicians out on disability with whom I could lean on.
I started a private facebook group called “Physicians for Physicians” for physicians who, because of injury or illness, had to limit their practice or leave medicine. I had no idea how many of us were out there. Just by word of mouth, social media, hundreds of physicians came out of the woodwork. Some who were better prepared than I but many worse. It got me thinking about the topic more deeply. Why were so many ill-prepared? Why wasn’t I better prepared? What could I do to help with this topic?
I found my passion. I started lecturing about disability insurance. I created a Grand Rounds to discuss the mental, physical and financial impact of physician disability. Physicians have to be prepared for the “what if.”
Our work does not equal our life. We need to make sure that we have lives outside of medicine. We have to be financially diligent. Emergency funds and insurance are a must. There are so many nuances to disability insurance. Physicians need to make sure that we are speaking with brokers who understand the intricacies and important pieces of the products that physicians, specifically, need.
We need to practice self-care. Treat ourselves and our colleagues like we treat our patients. It is okay to get sick and take time off to heal. It is okay to take care of our mental health. See a therapist, have a solid group of confidants, find a mentor, be a mentor. Ask your colleagues if they are okay. Ask for help if you are not okay.
My passion grew from becoming aware of how many other physicians had similar plights, some fared better than me, others worse. After reviewing the policies of other physicians and friends, I came to the realization that many had fallen prey to insurance brokers that didn’t really know the products, unaware what truly is needed for the protection of similar professions.
Along with the broker of a friend, who stepped in to help me when my broker was “unreachable”, we started a brokerage. We focus on education of what all the fine print means, allowing the client to understand the policy they purchase. We have been able to assist thousands of clients, making a big step to assure what happened to me does not happen to my peers.
It can happen to anyone, anytime, without warning. The key is to prepare for the future, the good, the bad and the unknown. Please use my experience, and the experience of others to be the impetus to protect yourself and the ones you love.
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