Dr. Thomas Fishler with Sonoran Orthopaedic Trauma Surgeons in Scottsdale, AZ, appears to have taken his own life earlier this week. I found out Tuesday night from my friend, colleague, and Tom’s partner - Dr. Gil Ortega.
Gil reached out during the day, knowing that I knew Tom. I was already scrubbed into surgery, but I was in the process of looking through a few messages with the circulating nurse before initiating my time out. Gil knew to tell me later. He said, “Just give me a call later when you can.”
It was an exhausting day. I was doing two remaining cases from a call night with middle of the night surgeries that allowed no sleep, until I took a one-hour nap between about 9 and 10am. Due to several delays in the add-on schedule, I was at the start of my second case at about 3pm. After a nice operation, I decided to go to yoga on my way home, which I often do for my physical and mental health, even after a long day.
Once confirming that my wife knew that I was heading to yoga, I called Gil. I couldn’t believe the words that I was hearing. I listened. We talked about a few things that Gil knew. I shared that Tom was part of my OTA breakout session next Friday in Denver, and Tom and I had been communicating recently about our talks and handouts. All was on track.
Although I was in the midst of my personal internal overwhelm, I had to tap into my current knowledge of what to do. I asked Gil, “How are you? How can I help?” Although Gil and I had very few answers, we talked about how we need to keep talking about wellness and things like suicide prevention with our colleagues more and more, whether in public or in private. We agreed that we would be available for each other, and I would make myself available for others in his group that might want to reach out to speak with physician coach or colleague in addition to or rather than a mental health professional. I didn’t reveal that I was struggling with the information. Gil didn’t reveal how he was feeling. I had kicked into professional mode. I don’t know about Gil. I didn’t want to push. I will check back in with him.
I called my wife back to let her know that I was ok, but I started crying. We have had several similar conversations over the years, when we have lost other friends and colleagues to suicide. I assured her I was ok and we decided that I would check in right after yoga.
Hot yoga was a candlelight class, and even extra dark. Many of the balance poses were more difficult, as expected with candlelight, minimal sleep, and heat. No one noticed that I was crying during part of the class. The darkness makes it hard to tell the difference between tears and sweat.
I allowed myself to be wherever I was for that day, time, and situation, without judgment and letting go of just a little bit of my extreme sadness. I know in this life and career that I can’t hold on to it all, that I can’t bury it or wall it off without long-term harm, and that I will process the grief and other emotions differently than other colleagues of Tom. I also know that I can’t reject the offer from others when they just listen, or ask me, “How are you doing? How can I help or support you?” I am ok, for now. I know they can’t fix anything. I want them to know that the offer is appreciated and help or support might be needed in the future.
Tom and I did not talk much about emotions. We had talked more about the challenges of practice and integrating efficiencies in practice, and his strengths in this area were why I had reached out to Tom to be on the panel for the annual meeting breakout session. I will share those with others next week. Tom was a great guy and a great surgeon. He was very caring, and I don’t think he would have intended this to hurt his patients, colleagues, mother or daughter.
I know I can’t change things for Tom - May he rest in peace. Like Gil, I want Tom’s life and death to continue to have value to many others. We don’t need to know why everything occurs. However, we need to continue to listen, as well as help and support each other.
As another of our colleagues Dr. Tony Rhorer shared with me upon hearing the news, “I would never have guessed in a million years that Tom would take his life.” He went on to say, “We are in the business of saving lives, but we are destroying everything along the way.” He said much more. I listened. We discussed possible next steps. We acknowledged that there are many ideas, and we need to bring many of these forward. We need to care for ourselves and each other as much as we care for our patients. We need to make positive steps - for Tom, our colleagues, and ourselves.
Pardon me if I am a little emotional. My friend and colleague appears to have taken his own life. I am ok.
You are welcome to connect with me over the next few weeks to confirm that I am still ok.
However, I want to focus right now on all of you, in tribute to Tom.
I am available to discuss anything. I am not a mental health professional. I can listen. I can’t fix things for you. I can share perspectives. I can assist or support YOU doing my best as a physician coach and/or colleague.