Your doctor isn’t superhuman and is allowed to call in sick

I mentioned having a migraine this past weekend, and was somewhat surprised by how many people commented and wrote to me, surprised that a doctor, let alone a neurlogist, would actually get migraines.

What’s up with that?

I know this may be hard to believe, but we get health problems too.

I see this odd view surprisingly often. People who somehow expect us to be beyond the health concerns of non-doctors.

We may be doctors, but we’re also humans. Prone to the same illnesses, bad luck, and erroneous judgments the rest of mortals are.

When I have to take a sick day (rare), and Mary starts frantically canceling people, most of them are fine with it. But we get the occasional person who gets angry because I’m sick. In their minds, apparently, that’s impossible. So I must be making it up to go golfing.

In 12 years I’ve had 3 patients change neurologists because I was sick and had to reschedule their appointments.

As a neurologist, I also take care of other doctors. I have patients, who are also doctors, with epilepsy, MS, Parkinson’s disease, and more routine stuff. I’ve seen young doctors die with brain cancer.

Being a doctor doesn’t protect you from the things that ail others. Including bad karma.

On the flip side, sometimes we’re surprised when something serious happens to us. At times there seems to be an unspoken belief that by devoting ourselves to caring for others, it should magically protect us from those same diseases we fight. Nope.

If anything, the high stress nature of our work makes us more likely to have bad things happen. We often ignore our own issues because of the time needed to care for others. Most of us live sleep deprived, caffeine-overdosed, and on food that we’d never endorse to you.

I chew out patients for not exercising, or a poor diet, or forgetting to pick up their prescriptions. But I likely do the same stuff as much as, if not more often, than they do. After a long day at the office and hospital rounds, and picking up kids, and Mrs. Grumpy having an after-work meeting, when do I have time to pick up my Lipitor and get something decent for dinner? So I put the pharmacy off for another day and grab a pizza. And hope that over the weekend I’ll find time to exercise. My average work week is about 60-70 hours. I doubt that’s conducive to longevity.

So yes, I get migraines. And if you think your doctor is superhuman, they aren’t. Even if they try their best to make you think they are.

“Doctor Grumpy” is a neurologist who blogs at Doctor Grumpy in the House.

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  • Wendy Sue Swanson, MD

    Of course doctors get sick. Many doctors’ experience with illness (in childhood) motivates them to enter the profession.

    Yes, we get sick, but absenteeism is still an issue in health care. No back ups for we doctors and no plan in place. Everyone SCRAMBLES like it’s never happened before. I rarely call in sick because I feel terrible when we have to cancel 25 patients. It’s not quite right. And I have appreciated all the writing this year on the issue of Presenteeism and the risk to patients. It’s been a good reminder for me.
    I went on bed rest for severe oligohydramnios a couple years ago (heard about that from both administrators and patients for months).
    And I’ve had to leave clinic for illness and cancel only a few times in 4 years. But I hear about it from patients for weeks thereafter…. hmmmm.

  • Carolyn Thomas

    This is so interesting to me. How on earth could patients possibly believe that somehow docs don’t/shouldn’t get sick?

    As a heart attack survivor, I wouldn’t be happy to learn that a specialist’s appointment that’s been on my calendar for a long time is suddenly cancelled, but these things happen! It’s an issue particularly because there isn’t a pool of your clones who could easily pitch in to cover the slack, as when a ward nurse calls in sick.

    And docs are under enough pressure as it is to come up with astute assessments, correct diagnoses and appropriate treatment plans without also being expected to come up with them even while feeling very sick.

    As Wendy correctly points out, ‘presenteeism’ – dragging your sorry ass into the office even when you feel like death warmed over – is a far bigger problem for your vulnerable or at-risk patients. Believe me, I really don’t want my cardiologists making critical decisions or recommendations or drug changes that affect my health outcomes while these people may be impaired through illness, virus, sleep deprivation or pain.

    Dr. Grumpy (are you really?) – those three patients who left you because you had been ill: send them each a ‘thank you’ card. You are far better off now without such unrealistic jerks in your practice.

  • Finn

    That’s just weird. Of course docs get sick; so do their families. Even poor diet and lack of exercise are understandable because of the long work hours. I’m not going to comment unless I see my doctor doing something shocking like smoking or not using a seat belt.

  • Dr. Mary Johnson

    Years ago, when trying to build a Pediatric practice from scratch (Kevin’s regulars know how that turned out), as the single girl and senior partner, I covered not one, but two (or was it three?) pregnancy leaves for my partners. For months, I busted my tail – took the extra call – and the hits.

    Nobody said a word to them – at least as far as I know.

    After all of that, with a complicated ENT history . . . and as a Pediatrician only exposed to all manner of nastiness every single day . . . I finally decided to take care of me, and had sinus surgery (as it ultimately turned out, the surgery was botched). I scheduled a week off – but it really knocked me on my rumpus and I wound up taking two.

    Caught no end of grief for it.

    I’ve learned to hide my trigeminal neuralgia attacks (which fortunately have abated significantly in the last year or two) well. Even when your face/head is about to explode out of your eye socket . . . keep on smiling lest you offend anyone.

    In the old days, I’ve also worked with an IV in my arm – it was me or nobody – and it could not be nobody. I look back on it now and wonder why – going above and beyond never seemed to be appreciated.

    • Fam Med Doc

      Dear Dr Johnson
      I appreciate your experience. I saw similar events in residency. The female residents would PLAN their pregnancies & the rest of us would have to cover for them. Gratitude when they came back? I NEVER heard a thank-you. Did they still get first choice for vacations instead of being put in the back of the line behind other residents? Yes. I’m all for equality, but my residency was not.
      Bbbbuuttt, our residency days are over. You better believe I wouldn’t tolerate what you (or I did during residency) had to endure from your collegues. I would speak up. Professionaly but loudly.

  • soloFP

    In residency I completed call after getting a bag IV fluids for the flu on my peds rotation. Backup would have been a pain, and I only missed one day of residency in three years. I covered one resident’s pregnancy call during both of her pregnancies, as did two other single residents. We were the backup for extra call, as most of the directors felt the single docs didn’t have to worry about spouses or kids.
    In the real world in ten years of private practice, I have never missed a day of work. I currently work seven days of week with six of them in the office. I know that if I would miss a day, I would have to add extra time slots into the day to see the patients. I have worked with the flu, pneumonia, and my 1-2 time a year migraines. I figure I can be sick at work as well as home.
    In my community multiple docs have had nonrenewed contracts and let go from groups for excessive sick time for back pain, depression, multiple pregnancies across 2-3 years, and last minute canceling of visits for various reasons. Personal days and sick days are frowned upon in the physician world, yet daily I am writing work and school notes for patients. Physicians are expected to be superhumans.

  • Meg Bressette

    I must be in the minority as patients go after reading this but if my doctor is sick then I want him or her to stay home and take care of themselves. As a patient with a chronic medical condition I understand that illness affects everyone at some point including my doctors so if I am on your schedule and you need to reschedule me I promise that I will not be the least bit upset or put out.

  • Anonymous

    My husband is an ER physician.  He can’t call in sick.  He goes to work sick.  In ten years, there was one instance where he had to call someone to go in for him for one day because he had a horrible case of food poisoning.

    People expect doctors to be perfect and superhuman.

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