36 Hours On-Call: For Reals

My school doesn’t allow students to be on duty for more than 24 hours at a time. The few times that a doctor has expected me to stay beyond 24 hours, I have always pointed out the rule and if they disregarded it, reported it. Because, seriously.

But for some reason, we have one week in Internal Medicine with Cardiology, where we are expected to work 36-hour shifts and somehow, despite many students having complained about it, it is allowed. This time I didn’t go on a “crusade” about it, because honestly I am just so tired of constantly being on a crusade.

36 hour shift

Technically, it’s not a 36-hour call. The first 24 hours you are on-call, and the next twelve hours you are working with stress-ECGs and doing ward work. I suppose part of the reason I didn’t make a noise about it was because I felt the need to know what all the hullabaloo wasΒ about. I’ve never worked more than thirty hours and I wanted to see if I could do it – because I know that next year there might be times thatΒ it is expected of me.

I left my room before sunrise to walk to hospital with my backpack and my sleeping bag. Students on Cardiology have an on-call room that is decent, but it doesn’t really have warm bedding. My bag was quite heavy because I had warm clothes, a clean change of clothes, food and toiletries with me.

I started the day with ward work – there was SO MUCH! So many patients needed new IV access specifically on the left arm, because when they go for coronary angiography the physician catheterises from the right. I got much better at doing IVs that morning. Luckily these patients mostly had great veins, as opposed to the patients from the awful Vascular WeekΒ where everyone had fried veins.

After this I saw some of the registrar’s new patients. There was a lot of waiting around because her day was off to a bad start and she was constantly being interrupted with new referrals.

By midday I slipped out. I had realised that I did not have enough food, so I went to my room to make a massive tuna sandwich.

I had been mostly on my feet so I was quite relieved that we had an afternoon academic meeting which allowed me to switch off for an hour. After that we had an ECG tutorial, which meant I could rest my feet but not my brain. I started getting reeeeally sleepy during this tutorial. It was about 18h00. Afterwards I ate my Chocolate ProNutro Energy Bar. Sidebar: I love these things. I tried the banana one a few years ago and it was awful. But the chocolate one is really good. And it really did give me a boost.

I had to see an acute admission quickly before ward round. When I presented the patient on ward round, it didn’t go so well. It was my first day on the rotation but the doctor really pulled the punches. I felt kind of miserable, and I had only just finished the first twelve hours. Twenty-four more to go.

The night was a little insane after that. We were running around the hospital seeing ward referrals and admitting elective patients for the week’s lists. In between we had our acute admissions, and our patients in the cardiology unit who tended to develop fevers late at night. Somewhere in between all this I munched an orange and a banana.

At 01h00 the doctor told me to have a nap. She didn’t have to tell me twice. I jumped into the on-call bed and my feet were killing me. But I was just too awake. I tossed and turned and mentally kicked myself for not bringing my headphones along so I could listen to an audiobook. I also realised I hadn’t brought my phone charger. But at this point my battery was on 60% so I was not worried.

Just as I thought I was going to fall asleep, the phone rang. The nurse was worried about a patient with symptoms of a DVT. So I checked her out and didn’t think she had a DVT, but… I’m just a student. What if I said she’s fine and something happened? I just couldn’t take that risk. Though I probably should have. So I called the doctor (who was also having a nap). She agreed that the patient was fine. Oops. But she didn’t really seem annoyed – or at least, not more annoyed with me than she had been earlier πŸ˜›

For the next few hours I kept being called just as I was falling asleep. A few fevers, for which I did blood cultures and DIDN’T wake the doctor, and then a few IVs that needed replacing.

I was too sleepy at the time to realise it, but the nurses really could have just let me sleep a bit and do all of the IVs at one time later that morning. None of them were on continuous infusions – they were all hep-locks for the patients’ procedures the next day. So they really weren’t urgent. I kind of got the idea that they felt if they were awake, then I should be too… but hallo, ladies, I’m pulling a 36 here!

staying awake

Eventually I got about two hours of sleep. I managed to fall asleep by eating a chocolate bar and then doing some progressive relaxation exercises. I could have slept more but the kitchen staff came in at 05h30 and made a big noise with their food trolleys. So I woke up and got ready. The on-call shower was pretty awful. There was dust everywhere. I ate an orange and a yogurt and realised my food was finished. (If you think you have enough food for your call… you probably don’t.) Twelve hours to go.

The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I know I ran to the hospital cafeteria at some point to get some more food. I know I took a thirty-minute nap before the patients for stress-ECGs began to arrive. Stress-ECGs were kind of interesting. I know I attended a few tuts and gave a few really stupid answers (at one point I suggested a stress-ECG for a hypothetical patient with acute coronary syndrome – as if I had not just spent the day learning about contraindications!)

I know that I kind of stumbled through the evening ward round.

I realised just how out of it I was when I started feeling really trippy while reviewing a patient’s echo and doppler flows. Guys. It’s so… fascinating. *googly eyes*

Anyway, the thing I haven’t mentioned is that during the 36 hours I got these periods of feeling “high” – like I could do anything. Like, “This is not so bad, wow, it feels kind of good!” It’s weird. A bit of a dangerous feeling I think. And I can see how people could get almost addicted to that kind of feeling. But the overwhelming feeling was exhaustion, so there’s that. I know that realistically I will have more than a few 36-hour stints during my internship next year. And I know now that I can survive it. But I also know that it was very hard, and that these shifts should not be commonplace.

Via Mail & Guardian, click for source

After I finally left at 19h00, I showered until the water ran cold. I stuffed my face with chocolate. And I tried to sleep. But I was too awake now. Overstimulated. My brain had one thought only: FOOOOOOOD.



  1. I am so glad that part of my training is behind me. I was always ravenous after a long call shift…I’d usually get fast food breakfast, and then I’d eat constantly once I woke up again. Call does weird things to a body.

    1. I know right? I don’t think I’ve stopped eating once!

  2. Paola Ysabel says:

    Wow, 36 hours? You’re a superhuman! πŸ™‚ 4th year medical students only go on 29 hours while interns do 24 hour shifts, but even then we interns still feel bone-tired at the end of the shift what more if we do 36. I agree: tired doctors = compromised patient care. All the knowledge you need to put in your brain can’t even process itself.

    1. Haha, thank you. I must say, the exhaustion I felt was not quite superhuman πŸ˜‰
      I think it’s quite acceptable to feel bone tired after 24 hours. Quite human!
      Definitely agree with the last bit. I want to LEARN, and when I’m that tired, nothing sticks in my head.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Dr. Mom says:

    All I remember of those days is the brutal post post-call migraine I would get. That feeling of being high you described, from lack of sleep – the only other time I have felt that was after the birth of my kids. The second night of cluster feeding reminded me a lot of call.

    Great post. Sounds like you made it through just fine! Congrats!!

    1. Oh, I get post-call migraines sometimes too, but thankfully this year they seem to be less (which is great, because I haven’t found a triptan that works for me). Thanks so much for stopping by. It’s always good to know you’re not alone πŸ™‚

  4. cayce006 says:

    Oh wow, I did pull a few all nighters (before exams), but working in a hospital for 36 hours, pretty much non-stop? That sounds insane. Glad you survived!

    1. I think it is pretty insane o.O But at least it gives me something to write about! Thank you πŸ™‚

  5. Read Robyn says:

    We have mandatory 24 hour duties on our Internal Medicine rotation but then we have to stay until post-call rounds are over and we usually have classes/tutorials in the day so it’s really much longer than just 24.

    You sound very on top of things though – right up until you got trippy over the cardiac doppler. πŸ™‚

    1. Haha, thank you. Good to know we aren’t the only ones who suffer! Yeah, I’m still feeling a little trippy right there πŸ˜›

  6. mommymed3 says:

    Hi! πŸ™‚ I’m sorry i don’t comment more. Between baby and 4yr old I’m doing my own 36hr calls! πŸ™‚ I read all your posts though and they’re great! Makes me nostalgic for student and Intern days…. I know you don’t want to hear this but you’ll appreciate these long calls when you start working, Then calls will (sort of) feel like a breeze and you’re being paid!! Some varsities don’t let their students work through the nights and they really suffer as interns. You’re going to be a great Dr! Take it from someone with 12 yrs experience with calls (even if I’m just a stay at home mommy now πŸ™‚ Keep going! It’s the most frustrating, exhilarating and NEVER boring job ever!!

    1. Aw, thank you so much for the encouragement. It really helps to hear that, because I’m so afraid for the challenges that await next year. Thank you for your support and for reading. Love to the babies!

  7. This post brings back memories!!!! Surgical training is full of endless consecutive nights on call. The only thing I hated about on call is that I always eat crap from the vending machine ( yes, because you always find that you haven’t brought enough food), so I gain weight and them it wrecks havoc with my regularity…. My bowels get confused. (Sorry, being a surgeon, I must mention bowels in any conversation). Well done!! πŸ˜€

    1. Haha! Thank you. Yeah, when I rotated through surgery earlier this year we worked super hard, but the residents worked even harder. I always gain weight during such rotations, and as for the bowels – yes! And I really kind of rely on them to be regular because public restrooms are not cool. Meh. πŸ˜›
      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Ned says:

    Haha I love that note about not telling people they have great veins for IVs πŸ™‚ well done!

    1. Thank you πŸ˜€ Yeah, my family always looks at me really funny when I mention their veins and IVs in the same sentence.

  9. harveylisam says:

    Ooph, I’m glad I haven’t had to do any call for the past couple of weeks. The longest I’ve been on call has been 30 hours, and it’s not the most fun. But I do understand those moments of “I can do anything!” though they may or may not be true. πŸ˜‰

    Great job on getting through those 36 hours. You’re a star!

    1. Thank you! 30 hours is bad enough! I wish they would be restricted to, say, 18 hours. I feel like I just zombulate after that anyway. Imagine having to muster the strength for something like chest compressions at that level of exhaustion – and that doesn’t even require any thinking! πŸ™‚

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s