Lynette Charity, MD, a board-certified physician and anesthesiologist, was on the ledge of a bridge ready to jump to her death. She measured the distance and the rate of fall in her mind, hoping she would hit a rock rather than drown.
That was 22 years ago. Today, she is a public speaker and stand-up comic, using humor to address burnout and suicide among healthcare workers. “I tell people — spoiler alert — I didn’t kill myself,” she says.
Retired from medicine after a 41-year career, Charity halted her in-person public speaking and comedy gigs when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, she is trying to reach out to colleagues and others via telehealth to emphasize the need to remove stigma from mental health counseling for healthcare workers so they can get the care they need now more than ever.
“Now, my job, I feel, is to just talk to people,” she says. “More importantly, to just listen. I have colleagues who have lost their practices. Who have been let go from hospitals in this time when we need personnel to be on the frontlines. There are people out there firing doctors because they are speaking out about their stresses. You cannot be on the frontline thinking before the next patient you see, ‘I’ve worn this PPE [personal protective equipment] all week and it may not protect me. I could get COVID and I could die, and then who will take care of my family?’”
Hospital Employee Health sought more detail on Charity’s unusual story in the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
HEH: You note that COVID-19 has amplified an existing problem within the medical profession.
Charity: Burnout used to be a gradual process. Now, you have been slapped in the face. Over the last three or four months, these frontliners have faced death, death, death. Constant working, not sleeping, not eating, not having proper equipment, fearing for their lives, and for their families’ lives. There really is no place for them to go for help. We are doing all this self-isolation. Now, we have to do self-care. We have to have support. We have to have a buddy. We have to have someone so we can vent our frustrations. When there is a cry for help sometimes, especially coming from physicians, nurses, or other healthcare workers, we say, “This is very devastating, but this is our job, this is what we need to do. We have to sally forth and take care of these patients.” It is being constantly internalized with no outlet. I tell people, “Now, you have to find a lifeline of some sort.”
HEH: Last year, you began thinking about making a change and retiring from anesthesiology?
Charity: I was thinking, how best can I serve? Public speaking has been my side gig. I decided I needed to make this my mission. My mission now is to go anywhere people want to hear me speak about the frustrations of the healthcare system and the stigma associated with mental health issues. Primarily as a physician, but healthcare workers in general, we cannot get the care we need for fear that we are going to lose our license, not get credentialed, and lose our means of income.
Last September, I decided to retire from clinical medicine. I’m still a doctor, and my licenses are still active if I wanted to go back to clinical medicine. But I really do feel right now that I have another mission. I am in a position after 40 years in medicine, working hard, doing the right thing with investments. We have raised our children, and we have a grandchild now. We are at a point in our lives where we can give back. It’s not for financial gain, it’s to help. There are thousands of medical students who graduated in May. Those medical students need our help to navigate this COVID and post-COVID world so they don’t go through the things we have gone through. I personally have a history of depression. I have been burned out. I almost died by suicide. I have stories to tell with messages behind them that I need to share. This is what I want to do.
HEH: As you note, you started to dabble into comedy to lighten your message while still working part-time in anesthesia.
Charity: I did my first open mic and went up on stage and did my set. About five days later, I was in the operating room and my patient came in. I said, “Hi, I’m Dr. Charity, your anesthesiologist.” He sits bolt-up right and says, “I know who you are!” I’m thinking I did something wrong. It turns out he had been there that night when I did my first set. He said, “You’re a real doctor? You’re funny!” I said, “A star is born.” I tell people, “As an anesthesiologist, I put people to sleep for 40 years. Now, it’s time for me to wake them up.” I speak on a very somber topic, but I put humor in it — even when I tell my own story.
HEH: To the degree you are comfortable telling it, what is your story of your contemplation of suicide?
Charity: I was struggling. It was 1998. I have suffered with depression all my life. I have sucked it up and tried to suppress it because I was afraid of being found out. That is what we all fear — that we could lose our license. I was on a bridge about to jump. The voices are telling me, “I’m not a good doctor. I’m not a good mother. I should just die.” There are all these voices chattering at me in my head. Then another voice comes out and says, “Call your mama.” I was leaning over about to let go and I immediately stopped. I pulled back and said, “If I kill myself before I call my mother, she is going to kill me!” That was the relationship we had. My mom was the matriarch of my family, and here I am ready to end it all. A lot of time suicide is spontaneous. No suicide note, no nothing. Something happens — a trigger — and people jump off a building. A physician has a death and immediately walks out into traffic. Somebody jumps from the hospital because they had a bad outcome or even just because a patient was yelling at them. I tell people if I had jumped in that water it would have been over very quickly because I am not a good swimmer. I was contemplating how long [it would take at] 32 feet per second. How far would I fall, and hopefully I will hit a rock and be knocked unconscious because drowning is not really a nice way to die. All of these thoughts were in my head.
HEH: Did you find that humor was one of the keys to overcome depression and help others?
Charity: Last year I did a workshop for physicians and other healthcare workers on medical improv. I had them stand up and tell me the worst thing an administrator, nurse, patient has said to you. Then we came up with appropriate comebacks — not, “shut your pie hole.” You just can’t say things like that. By the end of it, everybody was laughing. We need more of this — where people can just let their hair down and be vulnerable. We are not allowed to be vulnerable.
Editor’s Note: More information about Dr. Charity is available at: https://drcharityspeaks.com.