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Tragedy and Triumph: A Physician’s Redemption Story

Bryce Bowers, DO shares his personal journey into medicine, his struggles with mental health and substance abuse, and the story of how her overcame it all.

December 7, 2023

I always wanted a way out. Even at the young age of 10, something told me the way we were living wasn’t right.

My mom, charged with being a single parent and raising three kids, always did her best to provide for us and show us unconditional love. But there is only so much one person can do with three young children.

We struggled. We moved a lot.

There was a constant lack of security. A constant sense of fear. 

 

I had decided early on that I wanted my life to be different. Fortunately for me, my Uncle Mike came into my life at the perfect time.

The mentor that I still look up to, to this day, he was the role model of success I needed. College educated, humble and hardworking, I thought if I just do what he did, this could all end. 

He provided me with the lifeline I needed. He pushed me to go to college and educate myself. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. The idea never crossed my mind, even as I moved into my later teen years.

“Education is the great equalizer,” he would tell me. “The only thing you have to do is show up to class, and pay your tuition”.

 

Education is the great equalizer. The only thing you have to do is show up to class, and pay your tuition. Click To Tweet

 

I started at my local university, living in the dorms and embracing the freshman lifestyle.

It did not take long for me to understand that this was exactly the right place for me.

I excelled in my classes, where I was studying to be a psychologist (my friends always told me I gave great advice, and said I was a good listener, so this was the career that made the most sense to me). I could change the world by helping people with their personal problems.

It seemed like perfect harmony. 

 

But my intuition at the time told me something wasn’t quite right.

I began craving a greater challenge, greater learning. I felt like I was just starting to unlock my potential as a student, both in the classroom and in life. And in the background of growing up in poverty, I wanted to make sure that I did everything in my power to have a better, more stable existence.

After consulting with my own family physician, who served much like a father figure to me, I decided I was going to make a run at medical school.

It would satisfy everything I wanted; perhaps one of the biggest academic challenges a first generation college student could undertake, but also a career that commands respect, nobility and a fairly lucrative salary.

I started at Michigan State with so much excitement.

 

"My intuition at the time told me something wasn’t quite right."

 

My enthusiasm, however, was soon curbed as I came to understand the demands that come with medical education while competing amongst some of the most brilliant minds I had ever come across.

Like most of my colleagues, my sense of “imposter syndrome” started early and showed up often. 

But I persisted.

I persevered.

I had a dream and was motivated to change my life. 

Because of that, I pushed myself to the limit each and every day. I approached the extremes of my boundaries mentally, physically and emotionally.

I depleted any and all reserves I had.

“Grind culture” permeates every aspect of medical training; I bought in fully.  

 

I reached a critical point after taking my first set of board exams.

The weight of this exam could not be understated for us – it essentially dictated what specialty we, as hopeful physicians, could go into. But it took everything from me.

I remember walking out of the testing center and feeling like I wanted to collapse. I had nothing left. The intensity of the past 2 years of medical education left me feeling a way I have never felt before. A feeling of exasperation. A feeling of resentment. Of anger. Of not caring about anything anymore. 

 

The weight of this exam (board exam) could not be understated for us - it essentially dictated what specialty we, as hopeful physicians, could go into. But it took everything from me. Click To Tweet

 

I burned out. I had nothing left in my tank after those first two years and that exam.

Yet, the journey wasn’t over; if anything, it was just beginning as I entered into my clerkship years.

While I continued on with my studies, I began to lose sight of why I started this adventure in the first place.

My anxiety and depression were hovering over me constantly like a dark stormy cloud. But I made nobody the wiser; the field of medicine demanded we put our own problems aside in order to care for others.

There was no time for such selfish endeavors – or at least I thought. 

 

I began coping in any way I could. And while I did have some healthy mechanisms, like working out and eating nutritiously, I began to use alcohol at an alarming rate to numb myself from the pressures and demands of both life and academics. 

 

"I had nothing left in my tank after those first two years and that exam."

 

I continued to ignore my deteriorating mental health, thinking it would all get better once I graduated medical school and got into residency.

I did both of those things in May of 2019, and I shipped off to Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, where I would begin my journey as a resident physician in Family Medicine. 

And that is where the wheels came off.

 

It is strange looking back now and realizing how naive I was to think all my problems would be solved once I began training. They, in fact, would be amplified to a level I never thought possible.

I was nearly 2000 miles from my home in Michigan and my support system. I was in a brand new environment with new responsibilities as both a Naval Officer and Resident Physician. These were unparalleled pressures that I had not yet encountered. The icing on the cake was the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shut down of the world and then ultimately, the collapse of my being as I knew it. 

 

It is strange looking back now and realizing how naive I was to think all my problems would be solved once I began training. They, in fact, would be amplified to a level I never thought possible. Click To Tweet

 

My depression, anxiety and substance use reached a critical point that year. I struggled at a level I didn’t know was possible.

The problem was that I told absolutely nobody about how I was honestly feeling.

Whenever friends and family would call, I put on my best act to portray myself as upbeat, positive and living my best life as a new physician in beautiful southern California. But on the inside I felt a crushing sense of despair and agony that I would do anything to get rid of.

“I’m a physician” I thought to myself. “Why can’t I figure this out?”

And that was the problem.

I figured everything in my life out to that point. Everything.

I was a kid from poverty who managed to become one of the most educated people in the world. Yet here I was on the brink of collapse, silently suffering as I tried to survive just one more day.

 

But eventually, my day of reckoning came.

I suffered a mental breakdown that required two of my best friends as well as my mom and my older sister to fly out to California and drag me out of bed.

I had lost. I had given up. I had no desire to go on.

I needed help. 

It took a while, but eventually I was medically discharged from the military after completing my intern year.

In the meantime, I got the help I needed and got back to feeling like Bryce again. I moved home to Michigan and took time to reflect on what I wanted.

Did I want to go back to medicine? Was I in a good enough place mentally to do that? What was it I now wanted in life?

I eventually came to the decision that I wanted to finish what I started.

While working at a rural health center as a practicing physician in a small town in Michigan, I reapplied to residency and found my home again as a transfer in second year (PGY-2) at an amazing program in the Detroit area. 

 

When I applied, I shared my story and struggles, much like I am now.

I knew going back to medicine this time would have to be different.

Who I was when I started this journey was much different than who I am now.

While I knew my dream was still to finish my training and become a practicing physician, I felt called to do more than just that. 

And that is why you are reading what I am writing today.

 

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I have discovered a profound passion for advocating for mental health of healthcare workers and especially physicians. I share my story and struggles in order to help normalize the conversation around mental health in our field.

I see everyday that my colleagues face the same mental health challenges that I did, yet are reluctant to talk about it or get help. While I understand this thought pattern better than just about anyone, it is my goal to change the narrative so that nobody – physician or otherwise – finds themselves in the place of despair I was in. 

Admittedly, it is difficult to engage in this level of vulnerability. It is difficult sharing this degree of personal and sensitive information. I know, however, that someone, somewhere will be impacted positively by it. And that alone is enough for me to continue doing so. 

 

So I write. I started a blog, known as “Badge of Burnout”, with the idea that we all need to stop wearing our burnout as some sort of badge of honor. I

have started doing public speaking in my area to raise awareness, share my story and do my part to help others.

I want to start a podcast. I want to write a book. I want to connect with others. These ideas are exciting to me. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

 

I find myself now about 7 months from graduating residency.

I would not change my past for anything. It was necessary for me to become who I am today and I am so thankful and grateful for that.

As I near the completion of my training, my mission to help people with my medical skills remains unchanged. What has changed, however, is that I now understand things must be different not only for me, but all of us.

We must take care of ourselves in order to take care of others. It is imperative to understand that in some way, we are all struggling, and therefore deserve compassion, understanding and love.

My goal is to continue to remind everyone that you are a human first, and a doctor, nurse, physical therapist or whatever second. 

Take care of yourself. Love yourself. Get help if you need it.

Speak up. Be brave. Be courageous.

You may change not only the course of your own life, but somebody else’s as well.

I can guarantee you that is a level of satisfaction unlike any you will ever experience.

Bryce Bowers, DO

Bryce Bowers, DO

“We must first take care of ourselves in order to take care of the patient.”

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

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2 Responses

  1. Your courage and vulnerability are an inspiration. As a life coach specializing in physician wholeness, I see many docs suffering alone, terrified to tell anyone. Isolation is one of the biggest killers of all. Thank you for “sharing your experience, strength and hope”, as the Al-Anon literature says. Your story serves as a reminder that we’re all part of the human tribe; that no amount of education or status inoculates us against addiction or other afflictions of the mind and spirit. Keep telling your story.

  2. Bryce, thank you for your vulnerability and telling your story. So glad you are part of the SoMeDocs family!

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