The Soul of Heroism

Brian D. Wong, MD, MPH

Dr. Frank Gabrin extols the virtues of everyday heroes in his book, “Back from Burnout” while I decry them in my book, “Heroes Need Not Apply.” Yet upon closer examination, our respective points of view are remarkably much more similar than different.

The essence of the difference lies in the portrayal of heroism as an act of “doing” or as an act of “being.” Both of us agree that it is in the “being” part that true heroism resides.

In my original research, I spent over 5 years asking over 5,000 physicians, “Who do you trust among your physician peers, and why?” The answer came back to me in two waves – further, the pattern of the response has never changed. The initial blurt, centered on “talent, execution and dedication” while the delayed, and more thoughtful responses added, “teamwork, respect, listening and feeling safe around them” to the mix. Thus, the birth of the T.R.U.S.T.E.D. acronym: Team player, Respectful & responsive, Understanding & listening, Safe, open & approachable, Talented, Executes and Dedicated. In many respects, T.R.U. & S. suggest guidelines in how to be, in how to show up. I’ve chosen to call it “the role we play.” T.E.& D. on the other hand are all about getting things done, as in “the jobs we do.”

In today’s healthcare environment there is a pervasive sense of “hurry, hurry, hurry, more, more, more.” This creates an environment where everyone feels overwhelmed, inefficient and fragmented. The focus shifts in the extreme to task fixation and getting things done… to doing our jobs. We mutter to ourselves, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” We might even be tempted to say, “I don’t care how you do it, just do it.” From here, it becomes easy to say, “I don’t need to be a teammate or to treat others with respect, or to listen & understand, or to be safe and inviting, I have a job to do and I’ve got to put my head down, put the blinders on, plow ahead and get things done.” Both of us agree that this is a recipe for burnout.

Dr. Gabrin’s prescription for burnout urges us “to take a step forward and connect more fully with the hurting human in front of us.” This is an act of being, not doing. It is all about the role we play (T.R.U.S.) and not in the jobs we do (T.E.D.). Both are required, but it is the lack of the T.R.U.S. (and worse the opposite of these attributes) that is literally killing our patients and prematurely ending our careers. In my opinion, there is nothing more heroic than for us to create space between stimulus and response, to focus more on the being than the doing and to reconnect with our patients as not only the first step to doing good, but also the first step in doing no harm to our patients and ourselves. In this regard, Dr. Gabrin and I are in complete alignment.


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