Calling in sick serves as a reminder for compassion for this doctor

One of my Facebook updates on my private account was that I “have a love-hate relationship with interleukin-6. Yes, macrophages and T cells, I know you are doing your job, but how many proinflammatory cytokines does it really take to fight this thing? What’s that? Be grateful you guys are even working? Oh, all right. I’ll shut up and eat my soup now.”

Yes, I’ve been sick this week. It started brewing shortly before my overnight call on Monday, during which I worked till about 3 a.m., then tossed and turned till 5 a.m. unable to breathe due to nasal congestion, then got woken up by my beeper at 7 a.m. Rested Tuesday, then tried to go to work Wednesday morning but asked to be replaced by a moonlighter and went home. Called in sick Thursday. Was allowed to stay home Friday because of low case volume. This is rare for me. I almost never take sick days.

The culture of medicine has bred me to think of them as a weakness. It has also hardened me somewhat to any intrusion of personal problems into professional life in general. I can’t let exhaustion, home stress, or personal worries make me fail to do my job, on time, competently, with focus. It’s just not acceptable. Not being “on our game” for any reason is sub-standard because patients’ wellbeing is at stake. I find I get mentally impatient with people who make excuses – most of which sound lame to me – for not getting their job done. Medicine doesn’t care if I’m planning a wedding or if I stayed up late taking care of my sick child. The job has to get done, and get done well. No excuses. I find myself thinking very harshly critical thoughts when people outside of medicine approach their work with softer standards.

But this week my body just couldn’t function. On top of the nasal congestion, my least favorite symptom of a respiratory infection, I had a violent, productive cough that hurt my chest and kept my husband up at night, occasional chills, muscle aches, nausea, and fatigue. I was in bed for three days. The worst part of it was missing my family’s hugs. “Air hugs” from my adorable children and the fear of infecting my loving spouse, who hugged me anyway, carefully, despite my illness, were poor substitutes for the tight bear-hugs we enjoy giving each other.

So I’ve been thinking to myself – because I’ve had time to do nothing but think and watch reruns this week – how lonely many patients must feel in the hospital, suffering with unpleasant symptoms for days, with only occasional visits and brief touches for human contact. I remember feeling a little lonely even when I was in the hospital for a happy reason – childbirth. Illness is more isolating, and the truth is so few people want to be around suffering for too long. I wonder if I’ve been forgetting to be present enough to people when I visit them on rounds. Sometimes unexpected time away from work, not because of vacation, is a good thing. Having the tables turned has provided a reminder, a chance to reflect a little on things I shouldn’t be forgetting about. Like compassion for the sick.

“Anesthesioboist T” is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Notes of an Anesthesioboist.

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