How heavy and for how long?

No matter what the job or occupation, most people can admit to, at some point, being overwhelmed by their work. Doctors are no different. I know I’ve felt it. And it comes in different disguises too. You might think it would be patient workload or the emotional toll of some cases where the only news is bad news. But sometimes it’s just the bureaucracy of medicine that can cripple you.

Doctors, nurses or other health professionals, there is no one I know that practices medicine that has not felt this. Most of us go into medicine for the personal contact. Of being part of our patients’ lives. Of helping them through vulnerable moments and getting them back on their feet again. That’s one side of it. The other is a lot of paperwork and red tape. There’s not much in the way of training provided as to how to manage the practice of medicine. From bookings to billings, from insurance forms to all manner of letters, emails and on and on, most of us just simply want to fix things. But this volume of work can be all-consuming. More frustrating and more stressful than the artery or nerve you hold in your hand? The system itself.

I’m sure a lot of people face this. A what-you-love-to-do as opposed to the what-you-have-to-do situation. Thought about it over the Labour Day long weekend. A holiday meant to observe and acknowledge the dedication of the workforce. I started to think about all the spokes in the wheel of the system and how every job in that system is so incredibly important. If one of the spokes is not inline, the wheel goes off the rim. Team Broken Earth is like that. Every team member needs to be aligned and together we are stronger than the sum of the parts. Every member of the healthcare team, from the hardworking people at the switchboard to the paramedics running into the unknown, from the booking clerks trying to make schedules work to the neurosurgeons, all our jobs are equally important in caring for people.

But still the bureaucracy is a weight to be carried and you just want to put it all down and split. I know that sounds selfish but sometimes it can’t be helped.

It feels too heavy.

It just smothers.

That was on my mind when I recently met a friend for a coffee. I have to admit I was a bit down on medicine, frustrated and deflated. As I was waiting to order, the women in front of me turned around and asked: “Are you Dr. Furey?”  I replied with a smile that I was indeed. A defense mechanism kicked into gear. I prepped myself to get an earful about how her knee is not perfect or how I cancelled an appointment. But she smiled warmly back at me and asked if I remembered her. I’ve seen so many people over the years. I wish I had that kind of memory recall to be able to say yes, you are so-n-so, how’s the so-n-so. But I don’t.

I tried. I stared at her face for what felt like a long time. She reached out and touched my arm as she said, “10 years ago you saved my life.” I froze. Not in a bad way, just caught off guard by such a powerful statement. She continued: “I was down and out and jumped from a bridge. I should have died that day. You were the one who put my legs and pelvis back together.” All the images of her X-rays and trauma code came rushing back. She lifted her jeans to reveal the scars on her shins. She reached for my hand with another big smile and said simply “Thank you. You gave me another shot.”

I’m not usually ever at a loss for words. And thinking back now I know what I should have said. That credit you give me is really a team credit. We all did this. The cleaners, the nurses, the physiotherapist, the mental health professionals, the LPN’s on the floor, the blood collection technicians, the X-ray technicians and more. A collective, working as one for one.

I needed that moment and though she may not be aware of it, that patient helped me in a time of need too. Sometimes when I’m scrubbing for surgery with medical students I say, “can you believe we are about to do this?” This is usually met with a very worried look of panic and wide eyes as they search for the right answer. I (maybe sadistically!) let that question hang for a moment. Then say what I mean is can you believe the number of steps that the patient on the table had to go through, the amount of trust they placed in each and every member of the team, often implicitly without knowledge, to get here? It seems sometimes putting the knife on the skin is the easy part in such a complex system. It’s good to be reminded of that from time to time. To remember that it’s not “I did this,” it’s “we did this.” True teamwork is born that way.