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Posted by on July 7, 2015 | 2 comments

Letter to Junior Doctors #3: Get a Life!


Your response to my suggestion that you get a life – by which I mean interests, friends, hobbies, etc – may understandably be: “Sure. When?” You are probably working so hard so much of the time that all you want to do when you get home is sleep or veg out in front of the television.

Here’s the thing: getting a life is a form of self-care; it says “I honour my life and my interests”.

Being a junior doctor – a doctor at any stage, in fact – can be all-consuming, and before you know it your life can easily shrink down to simply surviving from one shift to another. But life is bigger than that, and engaging with it in ways that have nothing to do with your work will help to bring perspective to the day-to-day. Join a sports club; enroll on a writing course; take long walks; learn to cook… whatever. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it’s something that feeds your soul. How else will you have anything to give to your patients if you are running on empty?

I started to resent my patients for the extent to which they were “taking from me”. Of course my work was making huge demands on my time and energy, but it was also my responsibility to replenish my reserves. Unfortunately I didn’t pay much attention to that, and in the end it cost me in the form of burn-out and an unwillingness to continue in that environment.

Self-care is also about looking after your body and your health. Isn’t it crazy that we are so concerned with the well-being of our patients yet we do such a lousy job of looking after ourselves?

It’s easy to see why that is. Like many junior doctors I saw all sorts of pathology in the wards and emergency rooms. I was surrounded by people who were so sick that I tended to minimise my own symptoms. What’s a bout of cold when your patient has pneumonia? Why fuss over a minor headache; it sure beats meningitis, right?

I’ll tell you what that “minor symptom” is. It’s your body telling you that you’ve been firing on all cylinders and it’s time to take a break. Yet we seldom listen; we keep pushing until something eventually gives.

When I worked in the emergency rooms a number of my colleagues contracted tuberculosis. This was largely due to the high prevalence of the disease in South Africa’s public hospital environment. But it was also a result of their depressed immunity, most likely due to the intensity with which they worked.

Our work shouldn’t make us sick. If a patient came to you and told you they were working in an environment where they were constantly run down and getting sick, you would insist they take time off. You might even consider writing a letter to their employer highlighting the fact that the employment environment was contributing to their ill health. Why is it, then, that it’s okay for your work to make you sick?

You can serve your patients best by first taking care of yourself. That means looking after your health as well as your interests. So go on; get a life!

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  1. I’ve read all four of your letters Maria, in addition to the book (i’m a medic). Bravo!!! Your courage is commendable. You are indeed a healer.

    • Hi Mammekwa. Great to hear from you again. Thanks so much!

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