Healing words

Jenny Zhang stands at a lectern, holding a mic, looking down and serious.

“Even months later, I continue to relive this scene over and over. It invades my mind when I’m least expecting it. … My rational mind tells me it’s not my fault, but I think my heart will always feel that it is.”

That’s how U of M Medical School alumna Jenny Zhang, who is completing her family medicine residency in the Twin Cities, describes caring for a cherished patient through pregnancy, only to be faced with helping her through a stillbirth. 

Too often, cases like this extract a price from physicians, paid in the currency of stress and burnout. But help is at hand.

Zhang wrote a short piece about her patient’s pregnancy and delivery, a task that forced her to relive the wrenching experience and fight her instinct to “push it away.” She then shared her story with peers—about 350 of them—at the 2019 Metro-wide Resident and Fellow Story Slam. Besides bringing the audience to tears, she reaped immense rewards, in both the support she received and the chance to remind other physicians that they are not alone.

“It was also really therapeutic in a lot of ways because it helped me process it and think about how it was affecting me,” she says.

“Burnout is a huge problem in medicine, and residents are no exception to that,” says Maren Olson, an associate program director for the U of M Medical School’s Pediatric Residency Program and chair of the event committee. “We know there is some good research showing that if people have a sense of connection and community, that is protective against burnout.”

The November 2019 story slam, sponsored by the Metro Minnesota Council on Graduate Medical Education, was the second annual event of its kind — and by all accounts, even more successful than the first. Organizers hope the event, to promote well-being among residents and fellows, will become a fixture in graduate medical education. A date for the 2020 event is forthcoming.