Let’s Talk About it: Dr. Leigh Sundem Dies by Suicide

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Even though she had 16 academic awards, 6 professional leadership positions, 5 research projects, 8 scientific publications, 9 scientific presentations, 10 years of teaching experience, and membership in 12 professional organizations, Leigh was left unemployable due to discrimination WITHIN medicine…………

Wow!! To be unmatched for 3 years in a row. I can’t imagine the pain and strife she felt. Moreover, the letdown from a system she dedicated her life too. Imagine going through all the hurdles in the face of adversity only to be slapped in the face 3 years in a row. She was by all accounts a stellar candidate and would have made a great physician. The discrimination she faced was from a drug addiction from her teenage years. Really?? Show me anyone who is the same person they were as a teen. The very experts in medicine that are supposed understand human development are the very ones who discriminated against her for past juvenile behavior. That her past was an obstacle to her future shows the hypocrisy in medicine. Now, I do see that she had some responsibility especially as an MD to recognize she needed help, but I suspect her fear for further alienation kept her from reaching out for help. This raises the concept of stigma for both substance abuse and mental health within our own medical community. I wrote about stigma before in a prior blog (https://authenticmedicine.com/2019/07/who-farted-stigma-stinks-diagnostic-clarity-needed-to-distinguish-physician-burnout-depression/). It’s this very stigma that I believed killed Dr. Sundem. 

            In addition to the stigma concept, her suicide also raises questions in the whole Match process. The process itself, the issues of shortage of residency slots, and the inherent discrimination within the process itself. We all know there are not enough residency slots for the number of physicians applying for residencies. It makes the process very competitive such that anything in people’s pasts is used against them. It was like back in my Army days, there was this ‘Zero Defect’ mentality, such that any infraction, discord, or blemish on the record was used against the Soldier. It makes me worried about what will happen to me this fall as I apply for residency? As a 2nd career MD, will my age be a discriminator? Like Dr. Sundem, I have a good resume, passed all my USMLE exams with good scores on the 1st attempts, and I have a ton of US clinical experience, but like Dr. Sundem, will this be overlooked. Will I face discrimination too? I’m also a disabled Combat Veteran; will this be held against me too? We’ll see.             It just brings up the discussion about the shortage of residency slots that has made the Match process so cutthroat. Many qualified applicants such as Dr. Sundem go unmatched every year, and the expectation is that no one who is unmatched gets disturbed about this. If they are disturbed, and seek mental health help, this will be a discriminator? See the dilemma? It seems obvious that we need more residency slots, and petition after petition is sent forward regarding this. I don’t know what the solution is. We know what the problem is, but solutions seem to elude us as a medical community. It’s probably a hugely complex issue requiring complex solutions that this simple blog won’t be able to solve. But maybe Dr. Sundem’s suicide won’t be in vain. Maybe the discussion needs to start by talking about the sequela of being an unmatched physician. The pain of being unmatched, yet the burden of having to stuff the feelings as such. For Dr. Sundem to bear this burden for 3 years straight, one can only imagine the pain she went through.

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