You’re a doctor and you’re sick. Make your health a priority.

Last week I, like many around me, came down with a horrible cold. My husband got sick the week before and was in bed all weekend sleeping and trying to recover, and lo and behold, come Monday, I started having the same symptoms.

I knew the approximate course of the cold since I’m a doctor, and I saw my husband go through it, but I thought I could be strong and push through. I continued going to clinic and seeing patients, and it wasn’t until four days in, when I was in the middle of performing a procedure, got seized with a coughing attack, and had to step away that I realized … I should not be at work. Not just for myself, but also for my patients.

I felt lightheaded, congested to the point where I could barely breathe, and not in full command of my mental capacities; not to mention I was putting my patients at risk of contracting my cold. At the end of the week, when I couldn’t get out of bed for a few hours, I asked my chief resident if I could take the next day off. She, being the most caring and understanding chief, told me to take it easy and that she would notify my colleagues. But even after that, I felt so bad and wracked with guilt about not making it to clinic that I felt anxious and couldn’t sleep.

Two things come to mind as I’m contemplating this situation.

First, I think sometimes we are so worried about “doing what’s right” for our patients that we forget to step back and see the bigger picture. We can’t take care of other people if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Doctors are the worst patients when it comes to taking care of their own health needs because we put everyone else’s needs before our own.

I only have a cold which will pass, but I know others have been through serious illnesses including mental illness like depression bordering on suicide. If you are sick, please stop and address it. Nothing in the world, not your job or your career, is more important than your health. My mom always said to me growing up that her number one priority in life for me is my health, then happiness, followed by career goals. It’s ironic that we take care of other people literally all day long, but yet our own health is an afterthought. Make your health a priority.

The other thing is that if one person doesn’t go into work, someone else will be pulled to cover that person’s shift.

Luckily for me, there were enough people scheduled to work in clinic to cover the patient load for me, but for trainees in the inpatient setting like internal medicine, pediatrics, or surgery residents, another colleague would be reassigned to cover the sick person’s time off. There’s an unspoken code in medical training that you don’t do that to a co-worker unless you are seriously ill, like on the verge of hospitalization.

I know how much it can suck to be on the side that gets pulled in to cover. One of my co-interns left the program halfway through intern year, so every single one of us was pulled to cover his inpatient shifts for the rest of the year.

Another co-intern needed time off to attend a wedding and called in sick. Because of being called in, my schedule changed so that I finished my intern year with ten straight weeks of inpatient medicine wards. I think the bottom line is we need to be respectful of our colleagues, both if you’re the sick one and if you’re the one covering.

If you’re sick, offer to do a trade with another colleague, so that you’ll “pay back” the day that he or she covers for you at a later time. If you’re the one covering, try to keep in mind that one day you may need coverage too, so do your time graciously. It all evens out in the end.

I’m still feeling pretty feverish, so I apologize if this post isn’t as polished as I’d like it to be. Just my two cents on being sick and taking the much needed time to recover before getting back in the exam room with your patients.

Joyce Park is a dermatology resident who blogs at Tea with MD.  She can be reached on Twitter @TeawithMD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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