Okay kids, storytime.
This is a story of me realising how burntout I actually am in my job.
I didn’t think I was burning out. I was still fine to wake up every morning and go to work. And when I had weekends or days off after working weekends, I was usually unproductive and felt like I would be better off at work and being productive. I haven’t had any leave since last Christmas. I had a couple of weeks of leave planned and requested, but due to the wonderful COVID19 era, and lack of anywhere to go, and my working in the frontline during the pandemic, I cancelled all my leave requests.
I kept telling myself I’d be fine. My roster isn’t that bad. I get most weekends off and days off post weekends and sleep days post nights. And there wasn’t really anywhere else I wanted to be or could be. So it’s all fine. I’ll just keep chugging on.
Spoiler alert: Not a good move.
So on this fateful day, I was working in the medical ED (AMU) as usual when I received a call from the hospital’s discharge lounge. (It’s this area with a bunch of LayZboy chairs where patient’s who are waiting for discharge papers or rides home sit patiently). Basically people who are completely stable and need no further treatment/management go here.
So a nurse calls me up and says “Good morning, I have a patient from your team here for a blood transfusion. She needs to be admitted and blood charted please!”
My first response was a big HUH? I work in AMU. Yes I have an acute medicine “team” in AMU that admits patients with simple conditions like a viral illness, but they get discharged the next day. And we certainly don’t take elective admissions and we DEFINITELY don’t take patients in discharge lounge. Needless to say, I was super confused.
The nurse on the phone didn’t really clear things up for me. She said the patient was under my team. And she’s here and she needs admission. Over and over. Strike 1. In the end I said okay I’ll ask my registrar and come sort that out, and hung up.
I approached one of my registrars and asked him what was going on. He said that he and the other registrars had received an email from a medical consultant stating that a GP had called her saying a patient who was 8 weeks post partum was still experiencing PV bleeding and had a low haemoglobin and she needed to come in for a blood transfusion. The email also had the line “In retrospect I probably should have asked the GP to discuss with OBGYN, but given she only needs this, I’m sure we can handle it under general medicine” And of course, the house officers (like me), who actually DO the admissions, were conveniently left out of this email. So we had no idea about this patient. The other house officers were otherwise occupied so I guess it was up to me. My registrar also said it was up to me to sort out.
I didn’t know blood transfusions happened in the discharge lounge but the medical consultant had specifically asked for the patient to be admitted to the discharge lounge. It struck me as odd because that wasn’t a place unwell patients should be at all. They didn’t have a lot of equipment for medical managment there.
But I went anyway. I went to see the patient and made sure she was consented to receive blood products and was about to take some blood tests (nurses at my hospital are not certified to do blood tests and IV lines themselves. Even though nurses at the other 2 Auckland hospitals are) when I realised they didn’t have the right blood tubes for the blood bank. I asked the nurses and they had no idea what I was talking about. I huffed and had to walk all the way back to AMU to get the right tubes and returned to carry out the blood tests. The patient’s nurse and the head nurse stood in the room and hovered over me, watching. They seemed just as uncomfortable with this patient being in discharge lounge as I did. Only they didn’t really want to help me. I passed them the blood tubes I had collected and they just placed them on the table next to me instead of sending them off. Strike 2. I was sending the bloods off myself when the head nurse pushed a piece of paper under my nose and said “please chart the blood”. We were still standing in the patient’s room.
I looked at her. I was getting more confused. We have e-prescribing at our hospital. All patients admitted to Middlemore had to have an electronic prescription for their medications. I asked why I couldn’t chart it online. She said “She’s not in the system. It’s fine we can use a paper chart”. I felt super uneasy about this. And so I said “That’s a bit unsafe isn’t it? If she’s being admitted for this, she needs to have an electronic chart for the records.”
The head nurse just looked at me and said “Well she’s not in the system. You can just chart it on the paper”
In that moment, I got super annoyed. At the entire situation. But most of all, at the consultant that orchestrated this difficult scenario. So I said that out loud as well. “You know I’m really going to talk to Dr. A about this. Patients like this really shouldn’t be admitted to discharge lounge”.
The head nurse turned around and said “You can talk about this in the nurse’s station. Not in front of the patient okay?” And then she walked away. There was a steely note in her voice that made me raise my eyebrows. I immediately shut up. I begrudgingly wrote the prescription on the paper like she asked and took it back to the nurse’s station.
I was about to leave when the nurse, Ronita, asked to speak to me for a minute. She took me into the drug room and started talking fast, with a strain in her voice. Like she was trying hard not to cry. She told me that I was completely out of line and I cannot talk to her that way in front of the patient. She doesn’t usually have patients like this in her discharge lounge and she was doing it as a favour to Dr. A and the house officers aren’t doing Her a favour by charting medications so I shouldn’t be so entitled and she was going to file a complaint against me.
In that moment, I probably should have been appalled. I probably should have argued. I’m not sure. But I didn’t. Because I wasn’t sure what exactly was happening. I said the thing that was most obvious to me. That I didn’t mean what I said to put her down. I didn’t really understand how she made that connection but she had assumed I was hinting she was incompetent and discharge lounge was a crappy place for patients. I hadn’t meant that. I was frustrated that Dr. A had decided to place a patient there and stress out me and the nurses. I tried to explain that as best as I could to Ronita. I apologised for what I said and reassured her that she was doing a good job and this wasn’t a reflection on her. She seemed somewhat appeased and let me leave.
The situation with the patient continued, however. Ronita called me again in the next 10 minutes after I had returned to AMU to say that the patient had online prescription available and I could go ahead and do that. So I did as I was told. She then called back and said blood back refused to provide units of blood. I didn’t know what to do about that. The blood bank called me and said it was irresponsible of us as a medical team to just treat the patient with a blood transfusion when she had ongoing PV bleeding that was not addressed. She said she had called Dr. A and told her this, but Dr. A had told her to call the person who prescribed the units of blood. That would be me. The blood bank head nurse told me to assess the patient properly and call OBGYN. Again, I did as I was told. I took a gynae history from the patient, something I hadn’t done in years, and referred the patient to OBGYN. As I went back to tell the patient, Ronita reported she’s going to file a complaint against Dr. A for sending this patient to discharge lounge without calling OBGYN first. She seemed warmer towards me since I referred the patient over to the right service and out of her discharge lounge.
What a debacle.
Time for reflection. I guess this kinda shows my burnout because of the things going on in my head at the time. From the moment I received the first call from the nurse, I was annoyed. Annoyed that I was asked to do something that wasn’t my job, annoyed that I was left out of an email that would have helped a lot initially, and annoyed that it was in a place that I knew had very little resources for medical intervention. My entire walk over there I was thinking how dumb this was and why it had become my job.
When I got there and realised the proper equipment wasn’t there I got increasingly annoyed because the number of jobs just doubled. I was annoyed that the nurses weren’t helping me more and annoyed that none of this was planned out properly so that I could just do my thing and leave.
Loosely, all of the above translates to me being annoyed by kind of minor inconveniences. I should have known that the nurses there aren’t there to do stuff like this and they were just as annoyed with the situation as me. I should have expected this to be long and difficult. But I chose to be annoyed by it. And I said something to a nurse that was taken the wrong way.
Bottom line, I shouldn’t have said it. Even if it was Dr. A’s fault, it wasn’t my job to say that. It would only make a hard situation worse. It wasn’t going to help anyone. And the consequence was a nurse threatening to complain about my professionalism. Something I value a lot about in the image of myself as a doctor.
While trying to reassure Ronita, I realised how numb I was. I talked like an automaton doing confrontation de-escalation 101. Without really processing what I was saying. The word complaint definitely sent a wave of fear through me and I wanted to fix the situation before that happened, but in general I just said a bunch of things that I didn’t really feel strongly about.
And then I did something worse. I went back to AMU and started doing jobs. I admitted a patient and carried out a treadmill test and said nothing to anyone. I didn’t take a few minutes to reflect. The word “complaint” still bouncing around in my head as I was doing everything. After I finished sorting that patient out, I felt gross. I didn’t want to show my face in discharge lounge again. I saw some friends in the cafe at lunchtime and made a dramatic show of retelling the story of what happened that morning. I said it as though I was the victim in this situation. Being good friends, my audience joined in with my outrage and agreed that Dr. A and Ronita shouldn’t have put me through that.
But later on, when I was alone in my car driving home, I wept silently. I didn’t like the way I talked to Ronita. Both what I said initially, and when I was trying to fix it. I didn’t like the thoughts in my head about Dr. A. I didn’t like the way I told the story to my friends.
I realised my entire outlook was toxic from the get go. Every day I show up to work and do work, but I take things out on others in subtle ways like this. It isn’t always clear who I’m annoyed at but it’s likely to affect someone compeltely unrelated. And that’s because of my headspace. I think so much. Twice, three times when I see patients these days. I second guess every plan and every examination. I dismiss things as “useless” and “dumb”. I have no faith in what others tell me.
And it all starts with me.
Me not having a break from work, me not taking the time to appreciate the good things others do, and the way the system works. Me just not being wholly in the moment and appreciating it for what it is.
It’s a form of burnout. I didn’t even realise it was until I had brunch with a friend and she told me her usual personality of being loud and animated had dimmed in the last few months and nothing seemed to faze her. Good or bad. She said she felt apathetic about everything.
It takes something like this to realise that you need help and you need to make a change. I vowed to change. I made a simple effort. Very simple. Every time my work phone rang, I would take 10 seconds before answering it. I would literally breathe, clear my mind of everything, be aware of those 10 seconds, before I answered the phone. No matter what was happening. I would listen completely without interrupting whoever it was on the phone and I would keep my mind as open as possible while they talked.
I would then approach my RMO admin and ask for a few days off work. Just a few days. Not heaps of time. But enough to really feel like a break.
The leave hasn’t been approved yet, but the phone thing is working well so far!
I feel lighter. I feel more in control. The situations haven’t changed. There’s still a lot of questionable things I get called about, but I feel less intensely about them. I feel like I can manage them a bit better.
And in making this change, I’m slowing down my burnout process.
I felt a lot of anxiety when I got the roster for my next rotation starting in September. I aim to have some leave approved during that time.
It’s really important to realise the subtle features of burnout. It can be so variable for every person depending on their personality. You’ve just gotta keep reflecting and realise that it can always happen to you.
On that note, if you’ve read this far, thanks for doing so. Here’s a reward:
A calming photo of a sunset. Hope you’re all well!