“Don’t trust your colleagues”

This one time, at band camp…”

I had been working in anaesthesia for less than a year. It was mid-afternoon, and I was taking handover from a colleague. The intern who would be working with me, asked if they should prepare new emergency drugs, or if we would keep the clean (unused) drugs prepared by the day team. 

I hesitated, not knowing who had mixed the drugs. My colleague said, only half-jokingly, “Never trust your colleagues. Throw it away, and mix a new bunch.”

Back then, I felt we were being safe. After all, an ampoule of adrenaline is dirt cheap, and mixing the drugs is quick. 

Well, in a system like South Africa’s, one might argue that with a health department that is perpetually in debt, any kind of “waste” is too much. One might debate a great many things about the situation. 

But thinking back, what makes me sad (and a little bit ashamed), is that the primary message was, “Don’t trust your colleagues.” How very sad, if our go-to stance is that our peers in medicine cannot be trusted. How much extra work we will create, if we refuse to trust something another doctor has done. How LONELY, if we are to think that we can trust only ourselves, and perhaps our superiors. 

Nowadays, my default is trust, and only if warranted, will I think twice about a doctor’s abilities and trustworthiness. If someone has previously shown themselves to be unreliable, or to lie; to make careless mistakes; or perhaps if they are simply a lot more junior and more likely to have made an unintentional error. Really, like most of medicine, this process requires a situational thinking ability, taking multiple factors into account, and it must happen within seconds.

The point is, I no longer tell interns to default to distrust in their colleagues. Instead, I teach them how to predict and identify potential errors, which is a technique they can continue to use practically in any of their rotations, too. 

We need each other. This career can be so unyielding. 

Be reliable. Be trustworthy.

And learn to give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. 

1 Comment

  1. Nancy Ackelson says:

    Hi Mariechen! It is so great to read of your evolution towards trust. Not blind trust, just because. Rather, considered and earned trust. What a much better environment to live and work in. I love yours words,

    “We need each other. This career can be so unyielding.

    Be reliable. Be trustworthy.”

    I would add this life can be so unyielding…
    Thank you for being such a wise and caring teacher!

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