'We don't ask for help': Sask. doctor opens up about past struggle with addiction

Doctors are opening up in having conversations about burnout, addictions and mental health.

Dr. Wendy Gore-Hickman and Saskatchewan Medical Association start conversations around physician well-being

Wendy Gore-Hickman was an anesthesiologist working in Saskatoon before her retirement a couple of years ago. Now, she shares with people the struggles she faced with alcoholism, as part of overcoming the shame and stigma she says still surround addictions for doctors. (Submitted photo)

Like many addicts, Wendy Gore-Hickman grappled with depression for many years, thinking about what would happen if she was to go to sleep and never wake up.

"I was thinking that I was just going to die because there was no way out for me, there was no hope," she said. "You're in this locked room, and there's no windows or doors and no way to get out."

But unlike others who might struggle with addictions, those around her thought she could handle her drinking. After all, she was a doctor.  

"There's the idea that we're the physicians, we can heal ourselves," the former Saskatoon anesthesiologist said, adding physicians consider themselves to be smart, competent, and able to deal with their own problems.

"We don't ask for help, like some other people do."

A silent struggle

Dr. Joanne Sivertson, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, said that physicians struggle with addiction in rates similar to the general population, with one in 10 physicians at risk.  

However, she noted, "Physicians tend to be diagnosed later and it tends to be more destructive in their personal lives before it becomes dealt with."

Fears about jeopardizing their medical licences can also play a part in their reluctance to come forward, she noted.

Physicians struggle with the risk of burnout and suicide as well — a Saskatchewan Medical Association survey released last February suggested 62 per cent of doctors reported feeling at risk for burnout, and stressed to the point of exhaustion.

Dr. Joanne Sivertson, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, says the association is working to open up discussions on physician well-being. (Saskatchewan Medical Association photo)
New data from the U.S. suggests doctors may be three times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, with female doctors at even greater risk, Sivertson said.

The last SMA digest focused entirely on physicians staying healthy and whole, with Gore-Hickman's story among those highlighted.

Sivertson says people are beginning to feel like they can talk about stressors and mental health. One young doctor told her that reading the digest "was the first time in a long time that she felt human again."

She feels that increased focus is opening up conversations about well-being among physicians, which she finds heartening.

"What I'm excited about is people are talking about it."

Crossing lines

While Gore-Hickman notes many doctors face stress or pressures that can push them into dark places, that wasn't her experience, as she loved her job as an anesthesiologist and felt competent at it. But she always knew she didn't drink like most other people.

She drew lines in the sand for herself about not drinking while driving, during her pregnancies, or before going to work.

"I was a home drinker. I would tuck the kids into bed and then start drinking," she said, explaining she found it easier to hide her addiction than physicians who struggle with opioid usage might.

For many years, she managed to abide by her rules about drinking. But in her 40s, she began to lose that control.

"One by one, I started crossing those lines off my list that I would never go over."

Since alcoholism is a progressive disease, Wendy Gore-Hickman says it was easier for her to hide her battle than it may be for physicians who struggle with addictions to opioids. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Representatives with the medical association's Physician Wellness Program approached her, saying nurses had smelled alcohol on her while she was at work and reported she hadn't seemed right.

'Light at the end of the tunnel'

The call was a lifeline for Gore-Hickman, who had gotten to the point where she felt helpless to stop drinking.

"I just saw a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Gore-Hickman decided she would be upfront about her battles, in order to avoid gossip and rumours in her absence. When she told people she was going into treatment, the response was overwhelmingly supportive from her colleagues, family and friends.

The Physician Wellness Program was also an "amazing" resource, giving her the time she needed to heal and to get back to work safely, without fear about her licence or her insurance as a physician, she said.

"Every step of the way, they were there for me," she said.

Dispelling shame and stigma

It's the shame and stigma surrounding issues like addictions that are the most damaging, says Gore-Hickman.

"It's the 'hush hush, don't tell.' We all stay in our little church basements and don't talk about it."

There isn't a day that goes by where I don't get a text or a call from someone saying, 'You saved my life.'- Wendy Gore-Hickman

Being upfront about her illness meant other people have reached out to her for help, to the point where she has dedicated her post-retirement to helping others with addictions. 

"There's a trap door but you can't see. If you could see that door, and if I could just reach out and ask for help and even accept the help when it was offered — but when you're in the midst of it, you can't see that door."

Now, she feels like she's helping other people see that way out, and that it's OK, no matter what their background or profession, to ask for help.

"There isn't a day that goes by where I don't get a text or a call from someone saying, 'You saved my life,'" she said.

"It's amazing."