May 31, 2022

Healing During The Pandemic

I finished residency in 2001. Of course, that was the year of 9/11. The trauma from that incident brought fear to us all who thought we were safe in this beloved country. Working during my first pandemic has been similarly difficult. During the first phase, the uncertainty of treatment and the fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2 left me with multiple sleepless nights. I did not want to bring this disease to my family (my husband of 14 years and my 3 children). I signed myself and my husband up for the vaccine as soon as it was available, but little did I know that he was seeing another woman and taking trips with her during this pandemic. While I was working shifts and risking my life to care for others, two selfish people were breaking up my marriage and putting me at risk of SARS-CoV-2 and other infections.

I married a stranger. I did not even know that I was his third wife because he lied to me from the beginning. When I learned of his affair, I was embarrassed and worked for months without telling anyone of my shame. Initially and erroneously, I thought it was my shame. When I found out he had been planning to file for divorce for months, I went to our pastor to ask for help because I continued to blame myself. I held onto my shame and asked myself, did I work too much? Society tells us women we have to do it all. Give work 100%. Give our families 100%. Well, that is just selfish and wrong!

Prior to this, I had never felt I needed formal counseling because I was raised that if the church couldn’t help, no one could. After realizing and accepting that I needed additional help, I advocated for myself and sought counseling. It was a transformative experience. I was diagnosed with PTSD after a domestic attack in my home. Feeling the same shame that we often see and discuss in our patients who are victims of domestic violence, I delayed seeking help and did not notify our local police until days later. When I was accused of waiting too late to report, I felt utterly insulted. Fitting the pattern of abuse, that was not the only incident, and when it happened again, I had the strength to call the police that day. My empathy for domestic violence victims was already a part of my practice, but it has grown exponentially since my personal experience.

Throughout this hard time in my life, I leaned on my pastor, my family within the church, my work family, my close friends, and my personal family. My various families were always there when I needed to talk or lean on them for strength as I was recovering from the latest insult to my physical self and my sense of self. As we frequently do as physicians, I also found comfort in my work while serving my patients and in myself as a capable female emergency medicine physician. I share this as part of my healing journey and to encourage all of you. We all have a support system — whether at work in the emergency department or in our personal lives — that we can lean on in our times of need. We need only to recognize it and be strong enough to ask for their help and support.

I continue to work in the emergency department caring for my patients. This is my passion. I love my patients. I love that where I work, we serve the underserved — it is such a privilege! We are our patients’ advocates. While I continue to heal, I am grateful for my work family, close friends, and my family for helping me break free from an unhealthy and hurtful marriage. Yes, we as woman can have it all. However, having it all does not mean sacrificing your values and morals for a cheap imitation of happiness.

Ursula Norfleet, MD, FACEP
Physician Academic Coordinator
Adjunct Professor Department of Surgery
Meharry Medical College
Nashville, Tennessee

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