SAN DIEGO—In high school, Mel Herbert, MD, MBBS, FAAEM, thought he was a superhero.
It was an escape, of course, from being bullied and ostracized. It was a fantasy, from a childhood ravaged by a violent father and an alcoholic mother. But real or not, one day he perched at the edge of the school roof, several stories up, willing to prove he could fly. If he did, the abuse would stop. His world would be better.
And if he couldn’t fly, that was somehow okay, too.
He didn’t jump. Instead, he went on to become an emergency physician, which, ironically, fulfilled his childhood fantasy.
Emergency medicine “makes you superheroes,” said Dr. Herbert, an attending physician and professor at LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles. “You can’t fly, you don’t have a force field, but within the house of medicine, you are superheroes.”
Dr. Herbert, owner and editor of the popular EM:RAP audio program, led the 50th Anniversary General Session on a tour of the specialty’s magical journey—and his tortuous own. The session began with video vignettes and applause for some of the field’s elders, and then Dr. Herbert captivated a wall-to-wall crowd with stories of patients helped, mentors appreciated, and consultants mocked.
But mostly, he said thank you.
“We know [emergency medicine] is exhausting,” he said. “There’s nights and weekends. There’s sleep deprivation. There’s asshole consultants constantly. It’s a hard job. And the patients—despite what you do, it’s not like on TV. They come in and despite what you do, they don’t live lots of the time. And sometimes they don’t live because of what you do. And sometimes you get sued. And it sucks.”
So, thank you for being superheroes in the face of it all, he said.
Pressure is a privilege, as the saying goes. And emergency physicians do it with grace. They save lives and skirt deaths, often by making lightning-quick decisions for which they’ve spent a lifetime preparing.
And then, one day, the ride needs to be over. Emergency physicians hang up their white coats for different reasons. For some, it’s burnout in their 40s. For others, retirement comes decades later.
But for Dr. Herbert, leaving the emergency department wasn’t the end. Not when he knows how he still responds every time the cliché is asked, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
“You may hang up this coat. This coat that you have worn together through exams, through nights, through weekends, through dealing with asshole consultants,” he said. “You may hang up that coat, but that coat, it doesn’t hang you up. Because that coat’s a cape.”