What causes a doctor to commit suicide? A tweet from Helen Haskell (@hask) linking to a story about a radiation oncologist from Springfield, IL brought this strange case to my attention. Dr. Thomas G. Shanahan committed suicide by cutting his throat in November of 2011. He was respected in his field, having published many research papers and traveled the world helping to set up brachytherapy clinics in several countries. He also had been an acting alderman in his home city. He left his wife and three daughters.
Why did he do it? He had a history of depression. But an event occurred the year before his death that apparently significantly affected his personal and professional life.
Perhaps this story will puzzle you as much as it did me.
A patient with a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer was transferred to Memorial Medical Center where Shanahan worked. She had fallen and broken her leg and developed massive distension of the colon. She was having difficulty breathing. All of her doctors assumed she was terminally ill and advised the family to place her on a comfort care only status. Dr. Shanahan had received a request to see her and did so the next day. After evaluating her and her biopsy results from the first hospital, he felt that she was not necessarily terminally ill and should have a colonoscopy to decompress her colon. The other physicians declined to do so although inexplicably, a colorectal surgeon agreed to colonoscope her and ruled out obstruction but felt decompressing the colon would have been futile.
Shanahan then instructed a nurse to insert a rectal tube which evacuated all the gas and promptly resolved the breathing difficulty. The patient survived for seven more months with some diminished mental capacity thought to be related to the relative lack of oxygen when she was getting only comfort measures. She and her family were pleased with Dr. Shanahan’s efforts on her behalf.
The patient had Ogilvie’s syndrome, also known as pseudo-obstruction of the colon. It occurs in bedridden patients and those with recent orthopedic problems who receive large doses of narcotic pain medication. The treatment Shanahan ordered was correct.
But Dr. Shanahan admitted he had "ruffled the feathers" of some colleagues. He was called a “disruptive physician.” Memorial Medical Center conducted “an inquiry” to investigate his conduct. It was eventually dropped without any formal action being taken.
The chief medical officer at Memorial said, “Shanahan portrayed himself as ‘somewhat heroic’ to Reindl's family and was unnecessarily abrasive toward Springfield Clinic doctors and Memorial employees.”
Another account reported the following. Shanahan moved his office earlier this year from Memorial to St. John’s Hospital, telling friends and colleagues in an email June 28: “The last six months have been hard on me, deciding to defend a patient or turn my head and follow the herd. … I have received over 500 letters and emails supporting my decision.”
We will never know how deeply this situation affected Dr. Shanahan. He left no note.
Having learned all I can about this tragedy, I have some questions. Why was a radiation oncologist able to correctly diagnose and treat this patient while several more clinically oriented specialists could not? How is it that the doctor who made the right call over the objections of several colleagues is the one who is subjected to an inquiry and feels the need to move to another hospital? Is it OK to be “abrasive” when you are the only one who got the diagnosis right? Wasn’t he in fact a “hero” for refusing to back down and saving the patient’s life?