It’s bad luck to say that in a hospital

Doctors and nurses like facts. After all, we’re evidence-based thinkers — rational scientists. Yet, we can be surprisingly superstitious.

Many of us believe in a thing called “call karma,” which is when certain doctors attract sick patients while working on call (these people are said to have bad call karma). Other doctors attract less sick patients, meaning they have good call karma.

As a medical student, I quickly learned that I fell into the “bad call karma” category. When I was on call, I always had the sickest patients. My colleagues typically became familiar with the nature of my luck after working a shift or two together. They’d ask me to try my best not to bring too many sick people in. “I’ll see what I can do,” I’d respond, all too aware of my lack of control in the matter.

Another rule in medicine is that it is forbidden to utter certain words. Again, as a med student, I walked into a shift in the emergency department when things seemed unusually calm. Nurses were actually sitting down – a rare thing.

“It’s strangely quiet tonight,” I said. My comment was followed by shocked expressions from the surrounding nurses, doctor and resident.

“What?” I asked. “Did I say something wrong?”

The resident kindly took me aside. “You’re not supposed to say things like that in the Emergency Department. Don’t say the “q” word. If it’s not busy, just appreciate it silently. Be thankful.”

“Why?” I was surprised at the seriousness of her tone.

“You’ll see.”

Five minutes later, we received a call from the paramedics saying there was a VSA (Vital Signs Absent) coming in. Then there was a multiple Motor Vehicle Collision followed by a man having a stroke.

“And that’s what happens when you say the “q” word,” said the resident.

Recently, a colleague sent me a text message asking how my first night on call as a staff physician was going. Before I could respond, she said, “Never mind. If it’s going well, I wouldn’t want to jinx it.” One of the most intelligent, scientific people I know was scared to jinx my night. And I was happy not to take the risk.

The bonus of having poor call karma is the learning that comes along with it. Gaining from the misfortunes of others is a catch-22. In med school, I remember feeling somewhat sick when a resident told me how excited she was that a man suffering from STEMI (a severe form of heart attack) was coming in. As a resident, I recall my enthusiasm when I was first on the scene to respond to a seizure. One positive aspect of having bad call karma is that one is forced into being a better physician.

I don’t consider myself a superstitious person, nor do I believe in a mystical reason that somehow draws sick patients my way. However, I refer to “call karma” as though it is real. And never, ever, do I utter the “q” word within the hospital walls.

Sarah Fraser is a general practitioner who blogs at Sinus Rhythm.

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