Tuba City doctor’s death sheds light on awareness of physician suicide
TUBA CITY, Ariz. —Emergency room physician Dr. Zachary P. Stamile never gave a hint he needed help, remember his wife, family, and close friends. His closest associates were all doctors, and he came from a family of dedicated medical professionals.
At Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp., a Level III Trauma hospital on the Navajo Reservation, he worked with his younger sister Dr. Tessa Stamile and friend Dr. Tom Grosheider — all medical doctors. His wife, Jennifer, mother and sister, Susanna are nurses while his brother, Elliott, is an ultrasound technician.
“Even though we are all in the medical field and trained to look for signs, no one saw it coming. We didn’t know he was going to commit suicide,” said his mother, retired nurse Rosa Stamile of Flagstaff, Arizona. “There were multiple difficult issues in his life, included dealing with COVID-19, which hit the reservation very hard. Patients were dying left and right. It was hard for everyone. He would talk about it. And I knew it had taken a toll on him. What is startling is we didn’t realize he was depressed. He hid that from his family, friends and wife.”
“If it can happen to Zach, then it can happen to anyone,” said his wife Jennifer. “Zach didn’t reach out for help. Things have to change. Physicians need to be able to feel confident in seeking mental health assistance without the fear of professional repercussions. They are humans. They don’t deserve to suffer in silence”.
Friends say he was a valued colleague at Tuba City from 2014 to 2019 and later occasionally worked shifts in the Emergency Department at TCRHCC.
“He was a brilliant physician,” remembers Dr. Grosheider. “A thoughtful colleague, and a great friend to many of us. He lit up every room he entered.”
Dr. Kathleen Harner, an OBGYN physician at TCRHCC and an associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Arizona, believes doctors don’t take care of themselves nearly as well as they take care of their patients.
“To a large degree it is indoctrinated by our training. You take care of patients. You can’t talk to your spouse or anybody else about your situation.”
Some doctors also hope that there are changes to the system so that it is easier for doctors to seek counseling and not worry about medical insurance and credentialing.
According to data, physicians have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession, and more than half of physicians know a physician who has either considered, attempted or died by suicide in their career. It’s estimated that one million patients in America lose their physician to suicide each year, said Dr. Harner.
On Sept. 17, the fourth annual National Physician Suicide Awareness Day is a reminder and a call to action to understand the underlying barriers to mental health care for physicians and share resources that can help those in distress seek mental health care said Dr. Harner, a colleague.
“While physician suicide was a crisis before COVID-19, the pandemic has created a sense of urgency to better support physicians’ mental health and well-being,” Harner said. “Over the past year, over 6 in 10 physicians reported they experienced feelings of burnout. When left untreated, burnout can cause more cases of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use, and lead to suicidal thoughts for physicians, directly impacting physician suicide rates.”
“Nobody really talks about it,” Rosa said. “But doctors know about it and I hope what happened to him brings attention to the issue. We don’t want Zach to be forgotten.”
According to doctors the reasons that a person dies by suicide are not simple and are related to mental anguish that interferes with clear thinking.
“We may be asking each other 'Why?' and 'What could have been done to prevent this?'" Grosheider said. “In reality, however, no one has the ability to predict imminent suicide. We do know that talking saves lives. We ask that you continue to talk to each other and acknowledge any difficult feelings with which you may be dealing with. If you find that your gut instinct tells you something is different about a colleague’s behavior, please engage in a conversation with them. And if you still remain concerned about their mental well-being, please encourage them to seek help and consider letting your supervisor or other trusted colleague know about your concerns.”
“We are all saddened by Stamile’s passing, he was an excellent physician that cared for our community members,” said TCRHCC CEO Lynette Bonar. “We recognize National Physician Suicide Awareness Day to break down the culture of silence around physician mental health and physician suicide.”
What to do:
If you or your colleagues have thoughts of self-harm, encourage them to call, text or chat with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, go to the emergency room, or call your local emergency services (928-283-3111 in Tuba City). Also know that our TCRHCC Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is always a resource.