Medicine residency survival tips during pregnancy

by Dr. Whoo, MD

Q. I just found out last week that I’ll be a new mom in November, making me an official mother in medicine! I’ve been reading the blog for a while, because I love hearing what all of you have to say about your lives. Here’s my question: What tips would you give for surviving residency while pregnant, especially 30-hour calls (without caffeine)?

– From a future mom and Family Medicine resident in the Midwest

A. Congratulations on your pregnancy! I know that being pregnant during such a difficult time as residency seems daunting, but you can (and will) survive! Overnight call is never fun, but with a few small changes, you can get through a 24-30 hour call with relatively minimal discomfort.

Survival Tip #1. Bring lots of snacks to work with you. As a resident, especially on call, you often have an erratic schedule, and sometimes it is difficult to eat at regular intervals. If you are fortunate enough to avoid severe nausea in the morning, then try to eat before you leave the house. Pack your pockets with snacks that are portable, like protein bars, hulled sunflower seeds mixed with dried cranberries or raisins, or even the standard peanut butter crackers. Having something on your stomach at all times will help stave off nausea and fatigue.

Survival Tip #2. Some caffeine is still ok! No, really! I am not sure how much caffeine you have been consuming prior to pregnancy, but a small amount (150 mg-300 mg) of daily caffeine has been shown to be safe in pregnancy. The official March of Dimes recommendation, I believe, is 200 mg or less. One (regular) cup of coffee or 2 caffeinated sodas per day should definitely fall well within the safe range, not to mention the occasional chocolate fix (so needed on certain call days).

Survival Tip #3. Learn how to prioritize your duties while on call. It is likely that you already do this to a certain degree. Do the most physically strenuous tasks (procedures, lines, rounding) as early as you can in the call day, when you have the most energy. Try to chunk as many things as you can on a single floor, and “gravity round” (start at the top of the hospital and go down floor by floor).

Don’t be ashamed to use the elevator, but by going down steps, you can get a little physical activity without straining yourself. Do your best to anticipate any additional orders (nausea medications, sleep aids, pain medicine, diet orders, etc.) that may be needed throughout the day and write them while you are on the floor, saving yourself middle of the night phone calls for Tylenol during the 2 hours that you may have been resting! Another thing you can try is to do quick PM rounds. Alternatively, call and talk to the nursing staff, floor by floor, asking about any issues that may need to be addressed prior to trying to lie down, thus avoiding the “sit on bed, pager goes off” phenomenon to the best of your ability.

Survival Tip #4. Stay hydrated. I know it is hard to do, and even more annoying when you have to stop working and actually *use the bathroom* on occasion, but trust me, adequate hydration can stave off multiple discomforts of pregnancy and decrease the development of more serious complications like pre-term contractions. Have a bottle of water accessible throughout the day, and refill it often.

Survival Tip #5. Don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down. Rest as much as humanly possible, even if it is just the short time between one clinic patient and the next. Go to the call room and lie down on the call bed instead of sitting around and chatting at the nurses’ station, even if you don’t sleep, you will be much better rested and prepared for that inevitable page from the ER at 3 am.

Survival Tip #6. Bring your meds with you. If you are one of the less fortunate ones (like me) who happens to be plagued with persistent nausea/vomiting throughout the pregnancy, Zofran will likely be your very best friend. Bring it to work with you, along with Tylenol, Sudafed, Zantac, Tums, and your pre-natal vitamins. It will help you to avoid having to get IM shots of Zofran from the nursing staff or walking around with an IV (both happened to yours truly) for fluids.

Survival Tip #7. Utilize any support that you have. I’m not sure if in your program you take solo call, or if you have a junior person and a senior person on call at the same time. If the latter is the case, then utilize your support person to their fullest potential (if they are amenable, that is). Try to “divide and conquer” tasks instead of tackling them together. If you are the senior, then trust your junior to do good work without you hanging over their shoulder. If you are the junior resident, don’t be afraid to ask the senior for help if you feel you are in over your head.

Survival Tip #8. It’s ok to whine, but don’t whine about your pregnancy discomforts to your co-residents or to the nursing staff. Call your husband or your best friend, or compose a long, whiny email and then delete it if you must. It is normal to feel whiny when you are pregnant, but it may ultimately foster unwanted and unpleasant feelings in your co-workers if you vocalize these feelings. It saddens me to have to write this tip, but this is a mistake that I made in my pregnancy that came back to bite me. Sympathy is not always rampant in the medical community, so try not to seek it there, and you will not be disappointed.

Survival Tip #9. Be aware of your limits. As you progress in your pregnancy, you should not be lifting more than 20-25 pounds, nor should you be feeling more than 4 contractions in an hour. Don’t push your body’s limits in order to be a “super resident.” It is ok to ask for help if you need it, and don’t ignore the warning signs that something may be wrong. Often, we as physicians will push aside our own physical discomforts and keep on working. Don’t ignore serious signs like contractions, shortness of breath, headaches, excessive swelling, or increasing abdominal pain.

Survival Tip #10. When you go home, do nothing else but take care of yourself and your needs. If you need to go home and sleep for 10 hours, then do it, dishes and housework be damned. Celebrate the fact that, in spite of being up all night, you have this time catch up on sleep. When the baby arrives, your call shift will never truly be over.

Luckily, in many ways, motherhood is infinitely more rewarding. I wish you all of the best as you enter this exciting new time in your life, you can do this.

Dr. Whoo is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at Mothers in Medicine.

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