Are We Secretly Our Own Worst Enemies?

If you’ve been reading South African news, you’ll know that at least 300 interns and community service doctors stand to be unemployed next year, due to a lack of funded posts at accredited institutions.

Perhaps you read about our inhumane working hours last year.

Perhaps you have read about the overflowing hospitals where patients pile up in the corridors.

These are not new problems, we just hear about them more because doctors and patients have phones with cameras, and social media accounts.

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When I was ill recently (appendicitis) there was a shift of mine that nobody could cover. The hospital should have paid a locum to do it. Instead, people cancelled their plans and shifted around and, with great cost to themselves, made it work.

South African doctors are really good at “making it work”. Maybe that’s why we’re so well-loved in other countries. In a natural disaster, South African doctors will be the ones who work day and night among the injured and ill. They’ll find sleeping space for the destitute, but not for themselves. They’ll jerry rig drip stands. They’ll crack open chests with minimal tools. They’ve seen horror in their own practice, and they won’t be overwhelmed by this horror. Or at the very least, they won’t show it.

We “make it work” every day in state hospitals. And our employers know that we will make it work, and maybe that is why nothing changes.

Our nurses – bless them – have indomitable unions. When they speak, the administration listens, lest they suffer the wrath of a union inciting its members to protest. And they get results.

At my hospital, nursing staff have two 30-minute tea breaks as well as an hour lunch break during their twelve-hour shift. The doctors have no guaranteed break(s). I have eaten my lunch at 01h00 in the morning. I have arrived home after a 26 hour shift and realised that I did not pee my entire shift (and then I wonder why I have a post-call headache).

I have worn surgical gloves two sizes too big because my size had not been in stock at a certain hospital for over two years. I learned how to adjust my technique to avoid slipping. I still ended up with a needle stick injury that year.

I know of people who have worked shifts while hooked up to an IV line, because they knew that their patients would not be seen otherwise.

When we are short-staffed, we make it work. We cut team sizes to the minimum so that everything is covered. We come to work earlier, and finish later. We skip teaching meetings and training and courses because patients are dying, and further education is really a just a privilege, right?

But…

We

Never

Drop

The

Ball.

And maybe that’s the problem.

We stretch our muscles to breaking point to catch all those balls. We become weary and strained, but we hold on.

Maybe if we dropped some of those balls – dropped them so they clattered across the floors, and people stepped on them and tripped over them and they became a real nuisance – maybe then something would change.

Because we say that we are overworked, but all our employers see is patients who are saved at the witching hour.

We say that we are short-staffed, but all they see is that the shifts are covered and the work is done.

We say that we are under-resourced, but then we find private funders for our new ICUs, and to paint our hospitals, and to provide the medication our government will not provide.

Where is the impetus for change? It is not there, because we make it work.

Perhaps we are too proud to let the ball drop. We’re too proud to say, we can’t: we need help. Because isn’t that how we got ourselves through medical school in the first place – by convincing ourselves that we were invincible?

dbf8e6f859df16669b4d3d302c86a486There is a story about an oncology department at a KwaZulu-Natal hospital that had its medical officer program shut down. The remaining doctors left, because they could not run a service without medical officers. Very quickly, the Department of Health funded the MO posts, and the service was up and running again.

Sometimes I think that may be the only way we ever achieve anything.

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The Threat of Funemployment

In final year, we thought that getting an internship post at our desired hospital was the hardest – and most coveted – thing.

Two years later, we all tried to find a community service posting that would give us a foot into the door to our future specialties.

But we didn’t know that those were the easy parts. Then, we still pretty much had guaranteed employment (most of us, at least).

Then came the end of Community Service, and reality hit us in the face: we were on our own.

* * *

That’s where I am now. The government no longer “owes” me a job, and unless I find one, I’ll be unemployed come January 2018. People used to say, “There’s no such thing as an unemployed doctor.” These days, there are plenty of them, because freezing posts is a done thing.

Applying for my first post-comserve job is a bit like the whole “what do I want to do when I grow up” crisis all over again. Because I want to work with children, but how many paediatrics posts are available? Not many. And paeds has seen an upsurge in popularity, so the available posts are highly sought-after.

So what other jobs would I like to do? Jobs that could teach me something before I go back to working with children. But if something happens and I end up stuck in that job for a long time, will I be okay with it?

Looking for a job is an exercise in self-reproach. Why didn’t I do more courses this year? Why didn’t I write that diploma? Why didn’t I participate in more research? Why didn’t I suck up a little more, make sure people knew my name? Look at what everyone else has achieved. Why haven’t I?

It’s an opportunity to be kind to myself. I’ve had a big year.

I started therapy and finally found the right combination of meds.

I ended a long-term relationship.

I stayed on my own for the first time. The past few years were just adulting-lite. This year I had to learn the real art of adulting.

I finally started making friends.

As I explored this new city, I also explored myself.

I found parts that I hate. I found parts that I love.

I stepped out of my comfort zone, and as usual, it was rewarding.

Finding a post-comserve job is probably the scariest part of my medical career so far. I know I must not compare myself to others, but I also know that an interview panel will do exactly that. (By the way, I screwed up my most important interview. I got total stage-fright.)

This is also a time of great promise. It reminds me of everything I can do with this degree. It reminds me that I can stretch my wings. It reminds me that I am not captive. I am free.

 * * *

Sorry if you came here looking for some inspiration. I had to type because my nails were already bitten to the quick. Find me a job, and maybe I’ll be able to get back to the usual stuff.

Can I Be A Depressed Doctor?

Ever since I wrote about how going for therapy was my biggest gift to myself*, I’ve met with a few medical students to talk about the topic of mental health. Many of them were worried about their ability to make it through med school with their illness. Many were worried about the viability of a career in medicine with depression.

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When I was a student, there was a rumour that students with mental illness would be excluded from the course. We were informed by our senior students, and they by theirs, and thus the rumour was propagated.

This may well have been one of the biggest reasons, besides financial accessibility, that I took so long to get help for my depression. (In case you’re still wondering, the rumour is false, as rumours are wont to be.)

The reality is that depressed medical students are often high functioning in nature. It’s the reason they get away without help for so long. It’s the reason their colleagues will say, “But we never knew.”

I got through most of medical school without therapy or medication. But I didn’t get through it happily, and I wish I had found help earlier. I’m still not sure if my brain has recovered from the years of deprivation.

Now that I am more open about my mental illness, I have met more doctors – young and old – who are open about theirs. We don’t advertise it, but if it comes up, we don’t shy away from it. So I can confidently tell my young friends that yes, you can be a depressed doctor. But try to be a depressed doctor in remission.

For medical students (and doctors!) with mental illness, I recommend finding a treatment team sooner rather than later.

Find a good psychiatrist – even if, for financial reasons, it means you find a government psychiatrist. Or maybe a really good family physician. If they suggest medication, take them religiously. Don’t be the stereotypical non-compliant doctor-patient. And, as hard as it may be, try to accept your role as a patient when you step into your psychiatrist’s office. Maintain involvement in your own treatment, but put some trust in the expertise of your doctor.

I don’t advocate pharmacological therapy on its own to my patients, and so I don’t recommend it to my friends. Therapy is another costly but valuable part of managing mental illness, and one I have found to be invaluable. Once you are a doctor, you’ll be able to afford it. As a student, you may need to pull some strings, put your name on a waiting list, or open up to your parents for funding.

As a doctor with depression, I have days that I can’t get myself out of bed. I have relapses. I have colleagues I trust, but I have days that I second-guess that trust, and days that I feel alone. I have days that I can’t connect with my patients, and days where the connection is too intense and I just want to cry.

I have not yet had days where my patient-care was compromised. But I am always on the lookout. And I know that my psychiatrist and therapist will step in if they think that is the case. This is also why I told my HoD – not for sympathy, but because it is important for her to know. Just as we know about our colleague with diabetes, in case he has a hypo and collapses at work.

I also know that I will never sign up for shift-based work like in the ER, because I don’t think my neurochemistry will be able to handle that. Being on call is hard enough. Some of my colleagues accept multiple shifts in a weekend so that they can have a greater total of uninterrupted weekends. I know that I can’t do this, because I know that my mood takes a dip.

Managing mental illness as a doctor has been challenging. Sometimes I stumble. Sometimes I fall. Sometimes I lie in the dust awhile before I get up. Sometimes, someone helps me up. But the more I strengthen my support systems, the less frequent the falls become.

We are not cookie-cutters. I cannot say that some doctors/medical students will not decide to leave the profession because they feel it is incompatible with their illness. But that is a decision that should only be made after careful thought. Probably also a decision that should not be made while experiencing a major episode.

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Whatever you decide, don’t be driven by internalised stigma. And remember: you are not as alone as you feel.

*Strangely enough, the post in question has disappeared from my blog. A few of my posts mysteriously disappeared a few months ago. Quite annoying. 

South African Books To Read This Heritage Day

Because it’s Heritage Weekend, and I’m working tomorrow (the actual Heritage Day), and I haven’t posted anything bookish in a long time.

I continue to have a love affair with South African (and African continental) books. Below are some of my previous lists on the same topic. (This is not a ranked list. This is a list of more books I’ve discovered since my last list.) (Mh. I thought I had more than two of these…)

Continue reading “South African Books To Read This Heritage Day”

DOC-U-MENTALLY: The Film [Review]

Breaking this unintentional hiatus to tell you (read: shout from the rooftops) that I have watched Doc-u-mentally and

IT.

IS.

AMAZING!

Continue reading “DOC-U-MENTALLY: The Film [Review]”