Sunday, 24 April 2016

Everyday crises

Death and taxes - the great unavoidables in life. Except, perhaps, if you have the phone number for a lawyer in Panama. Yet even the rich have yet to cheat death - it remains the great equaliser.

If 2016 is a bad year for celebrities, think for a moment about what it is that grabs us when one of them dies. The death of a celebrity prompts a bout of intoxicating nostalgia, that is not possible when they are alive. The loss of someone we feel we know (but haven't met) triggers some intangible emotions related to the fact that we have lost someone who didn't know they were important to us. Perhaps some of the grief is wrapped up in the realisation that they will never have the chance to know how important they were to us. Celebrities must have some abstract sense of the role they have played in other people's lives, but I doubt that they really grasp how resonant their song, book, film or art was to all their fans. Perhaps the sense of loss is more selfish - that the death of a celebrity reminds us of a bit our past that has gone for ever: reminds us that we are relentlessly marching in the same direction. I tie myself in knots thinking about it.

The manner of dying also has resonance: Bowie orchestrated a most stylish exit. Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood seem to have died privately, with friends and family around them. Prince was found in a lift. Marvin Gaye was shot by his father on his 45th birthday. Sean McGrotty died trying to rescue his family from a sinking car, after he had taken his 4 month old baby safely to the surface. The moment of dying is not just an ending, it is an epilogue to a life. It is the last thing you read in the book of someone's life, and it can colour or enhance everything that went before. 

I thought about this recently, when I heard that the body of Rose Polge had been found. All I know about her is that she was a junior doctor in Devon, and had last been seen in February; a note was found in her car. Who knows if being a doctor had anything to do with her death, but it sits there in the biography of her life as an emblem.

One's first years of practising medicine are an intoxicating mixture of pride, exhilaration, fear and exhaustion. While experiencing the thrill of diagnosing, prescribing and helping, there is also the worry, pressure and intensity. People always say that medicine is a tough job, but nothing prepares you for the reality of it. It is an odd and overwhelming feeling to be a doctor after the years spent chasing it. However, I found myself, for a time, hating parts of the job, and feeling wretched about it. It eased with time, but whenever I thought I had it sussed, something came along to unsettle me. Even now, I'm not quite sure how I made it through five years of being a medical registrar.

As I experienced self-doubt, and negative thoughts, I would look around me. All around me, I would see my peers seemingly sailing through with charm and style.  For a while as a house office, I went through some particularly hopeless periods. I wondered how I could feel so bitter about the people I was helping. I started to wonder if I cared enough about people to be a doctor. Interestingly, I started to find some perspective when I read 'House of God'. Samuel Shem's dark satire portrays a world so fancifully unrealistic, it is easy to dismiss it simply as black humour. But every hospital has a Fat Man,, who boils the world of medicine down to 13 simple rules. I had mine, and it was through him, I started to realise that I wasn't a bad doctor, I was simply a young doctor being asked to find his way through medicine without enough help. I wanted to be a Fat Man when I grew up. I guess we all do in a way: he is the one who makes it look easy. Yet even he went through his black periods, and perhaps the one thing that teaches us is never to trust the person who has never found it difficult.


There is nothing wrong with medicine being a challenging job. It is probably the lure of the challenge that draws so many in. It is therefore, unsurprising that many find it hard along the way: if we all found it easy, it would mean that it isn't that hard. What troubles me when I see it, is the failure to recognise and deal with stress and anxiety when we come across it at work. Who of us can truthfully say that we always help a struggling colleague whenever we find them? I often think about a house officer of mine who found the going tough when I was a registrar. I wanted to help her, but was barely keeping my head above water myself. I worked for a consultant who expected me to cope with everything that came my way. I often wonder what happened to her, and whether she made it through.

The challenge of supporting junior doctors gets confused because of how we think about junior doctors. The fact that we call them junior doctors illustrates the point. We treat them as students, and trainees, rather than fully functioning professionals. I prefer to think of them as colleagues. I prefer to think of them exactly as I think of other consultants, nurses and therapists. Of course, there are differences, but we shouldn't use these as an excuse for unjustified differences in how we treat them.

The hardest thing about dealing with junior doctors is their transience: they spend a few months with a team before moving on. There is little time to develop deep and trusting relationships. By the time you have understood how they are doing and what help they need, they are moving on. And this is the problem: we work with colleagues on the understanding that normally everything works well, but sometimes, we have to deal with problems.

The reality is that there are problems all the time. Dealing with challenges and stress is a daily part of the job, and should therefore be a daily part of the way we work.

From experiencing deep personal crises, I have learned that one of the most useless things to say to someone is 'You can ask me for help anytime.' One of the hallmarks of a crisis is not knowing how to ask for help, or how to approach a problem. The most helpful thing you can do for someone, is well, something helpful. You may not be able to solve the problem, but you can take away other things unrelated to the problem and increase their capacity for meeting the challenges ahead of them. I remember my Mum helping a neighbour who had lost her husband by doing her ironing. I thought it odd, but later realised, instead of offering sympathetic platitudes, she was doing something useful.

The most helpful thing that teams can do for junior doctors is to function in a way that allows the open contribution and discussion of problems and aspirations as part of the routine.

Personal sustainability in medicine is all about having the routines and habits that make a difficult job easier to bear, and teams who share the load. None of these skills is currently taught to junior doctors - they are expected to learn from people who themselves have never learned the good habits of personal sustainability. Is it any wonder then, that nothing seems to get better?

My goal is to ensure that the teams I work in communicate openly and honestly all the time; that we talk regularly about what is going well and what isn't; that we discuss what we want to do next, and we do it all together. I think, if we can do this, then any new member of staff, be it a junior doctor, healthcare assistant or nurse will join a team in which they know that they can learn, and struggle, and that all they support that they might ever need will not just be there when they ask for it, but given to them freely from the start.


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