‘To have empathy amongst the chaos, your own self-care bucket must be full’

For UHN Emergency physician Dr. Dawn Lim, the pandemic is a catalyst for discussion to prioritize what is essential about healthcare. “These investments are not just ‘nice to have,’ they’re important – a must-have. There’s a reason why it’s called essential.” (Photo: UHN)

For one UHN doctor, the Omicron wave has served as societal truth serum – heightening a stark reality of the healthcare system.

“The system is broken,” says UHN Emergency physician Dr. Dawn Lim. “COVID is a normal that’s already so abnormal. This is more abnormal.”

Prior to March 11, 2020, many in healthcare knew the hospital ecosystem was a fragile one, with chronic issues of over-capacity, hallway medicine in the Emergency Department and staff burnout.

“It’s been a slow pressure,” says Dr. Lim, “I saw it with the nurses first, then it got worse with Omicron.

“There is a sense of powerlessness.”

Dr. Lim hopes the pandemic experience serves as a catalyst that leads to prioritizing what is essential about healthcare to ensure we live in a healthier world.

“When we don’t prioritize proper healthcare, proper sick days, we’re not appreciating the services,” says Dr. Lim. “These investments are not just ‘nice to have,’ they’re important – a must-have.

“There’s a reason why it’s called essential.”

As for coping with burnout, Dr. Lim had that struggle several years ago.

“I had a chance to work through what made me angry,” she says. “The personal work of being able to identify and work through my feelings was so important.

“During the pandemic, I have reserves. That was hugely helpful. I found a hobby that really lights me – and I always go back to my photography.”

Dr. Lim won a 2021 National Magazine Award for her cover photo and essay on UHN staff and patients during the early weeks of the pandemic in Maclean’s Magazine: ‘I saw fleeting moments no one remembers’: One ER doctor’s photos from the coronavirus frontlines – Macleans.ca.

Dr. Lim has empathy for what her colleagues face today. Although personal resilience is sometimes perceived as a way of offloading the gaps in an underfunded system to healthcare workers, she disagrees.

“Decades of underfunding won’t get fixed anytime soon,” Dr. Lim says. “You can’t control how fast patients get admitted upstairs, or who is willing to get vaccinated. None of these things are under your control, but if you’re frustrated about what can’t quickly be fixed then, of course, there’s going to be a huge sense of powerlessness.

“The only thing you can control is your reaction to these problems. To have empathy amongst the chaos, your own self-care bucket must be full.

“As nurturers, we are overrun. I hope we all take the time to understand what this pandemic means to us,” she says. “What does this trauma mean to us? We shouldn’t ignore that question.”

To that end,​​ Dr. Lim has created a shame resilience workshop geared to doctors.

“It’s about the shame culture of medicine, shame resilience, vulnerability, gratitude, empathy, healthy boundaries,” she says. “It’s about the practices and habits that can help bring meaning to our work again.”

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