NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine
When my son was little we lived in an apartment where the kitchen was a separate room, with only a small window through which I could see what he was doing in the living room while I cooked. Once when he was about five months old, I looked out and he was lying on the mat in the middle of the floor, playing happily with the toys dangling from arches overhead. I swear I only turned around for a minute, and when I looked back he was gone. Empty mat, toys still dangling, no kid, no sounds. I can’t remember what I was doing, but it felt like a slow motion eternity getting out of that damn kitchen to find him. Something heavy must have fallen on him or he was otherwise suffocating or dying, for sure. …He had just learned to roll over, and he had rolled and rolled and rolled himself into the space under the air conditioning unit near the window. He was turning over a dried jasmine leaf he’d found on the floor. Not long after that I decided I had to buy food preparation gloves. Just in case my kid needed me anytime I was handling raw meat, this would save me the infinitude of time it would take to wash my hands—I could just pull the gloves off and bolt! Because you know, 30 seconds could mean life or death for a toddler in his own living room.
Please laugh—I did today when I told the story to a friend. It came up as we explored the phenomenon of moms putting everything for their kids before themselves. We compared notes on how long we had ever held our urine. What mom has not done this? You can’t pee! Because you never know which minute you’re not with your children will be the one during which your neglect will kill them. Thankfully children grow and become more independent, and we can free our bladders again eventually.
It’s not just moms, though. One of my teachers in the hospital gave herself a urinary tract infection as a resident. She had so much to do every day, so many patients who needed her that she felt guilty taking time to pee. I did the same thing in clinic for many years. I could not justify making patients wait another minute when I was already 15 (usually more) minutes late seeing them. I don’t do this anymore. In a fit of efficiency last week, I stepped into the restroom after I set my lunch to microwave for 2:00. It literally takes only a minute to pee. I don’t usually run late these days, but even if do, now take care of my needs first. It’s better for me, and better for my patients, whose doctor is not distracted by preventable physical discomfort and dying to end the interview or exam to get some relief.
Our culture still expects moms, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many others to sacrifice selflessly in service of our charges. UTIs are the least important consequence. Over 50% of physicians in the US report at least one symptom of burnout, and 400 doctors kill themselves annually. That is the equivalent of my entire medical school, dead, every year. It’s not all because of the job, but the obligatory selfless-giver mentality in medicine definitely contributes.
So whatever helping profession you are in, please take time to take care of yourself. We need you whole and healthy to take care of the rest of us and our children.
Go pee. I will wait.