A few weeks ago, I woke up feeling under the weather. It was day one of seven consecutive shifts. I looked into the mirror. A sullen face with sunken eyes stared back. As I was getting dressed, I felt fatigue trying to triumph over my body. Next came a nagging and rude cough that kept interrupting my sentences. I started to feel feverish, and sure enough, I measured a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit. My husband, who is also a physician, made me some hot tea and gave me a cocktail of medications. We contemplated that I call in sick but instantly felt guilty about the thought and dismissed the inclination. I may have felt like death, but I wasn’t dying. So why would I call in sick and cause sheer scheduling chaos and annoyance to everyone?
My first stop at the hospital was the doctors’ lounge where I filled up a cup with hot water to soothe my throat. After two cups, I made my way to the nurses’ station and reviewed my patient list. Despite the medications and a few cups of hot water, my sickness was apparently transparent as everyone asked me if I was OK. I addressed everyone’s concerns while maintaining a safe distance. Next, I grabbed a mask and gloves and began my doctorly duties of the day. I washed my hands to the point where lotion became a necessity and made sure my mouth full of germs kept tucked away behind that mighty yellow mask.
One patient I saw was a young lady who had been admitted for acute bronchitis. She had received intravenous antibiotics for two days, had fully recovered and was doing well. I walked into her room and told her the good news. She was happy to hear that she would be discharged from the hospital but added that she would like a note for work. She wanted to stay home for a few days and rest before going back to work. I obliged, although I will admit that I was extremely envious. I wished someone would do the same for me but felt contrite for wishing that and dragged myself to the next patient room while battling that irritating cough and feverish fatigue.
The notion of rest seemed so attractive yet so unattainable. If I was my own patient, I would’ve advised myself to go home and rest. But here I was, doing the exact opposite.
The idea of “don’t call in sick unless you are deathly ill” is ingrained in us from the beginning of our training. Doctors do not want to abandon patients or burden their colleagues. Ultimately, it all boils down to logistics and inconvenience. Arranging last minute coverage in the world of healthcare is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a scheduler. It is an inconvenience to colleagues and, in an outpatient setting, an inconvenience to patients.
I wish there was a way to rectify this culture. At the very least, I wish the guilt associated with falling sick wasn’t implanted in us since the very beginning of our careers. I have touched upon the human aspect of being a physician multiple times in my columns. This is yet another example. Doctors are humans and should feel human when they get sick. On the contrary, they are expected to show up to work when they are sick, and provide care to patients when they are in need of care themselves. Unfortunately, it’s a despondent reality with no immediate solution. It is much easier and convenient for everyone if a sick physician just shows up to work and chugs along.
Neha Sharma is a hospitalist. This article originally appeared in the El Paso Times.
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