It’s okay to be sick – we’re all human

Today I called in sick to work. My sore throat kept me up all night, swallowing my own saliva took heroic efforts. Speaking was out of the question (and my current job requires me to speak all day).

It’s a terribly inconvenient time to fall ill, why couldn’t I have fallen ill when there were hardly any patients scheduled? Instead I’m sick during our busiest time of the year.

But, I did it, I called in sick. Admitting that I couldn’t come into work felt almost criminal, guilt swept over me. Was it really that bad? I was letting the team down…

No. Enough of that line of thinking.

It’s okay to be sick. It’s okay to take a day off work for our health (physical, emotional and spiritual). We’re all human and I’ve decided 2023 is the year I don’t place my health at the bottom of my priority list.

After years as a medical student and junior doctor, I’ve become very good at ignoring my physical needs.

When my husband asks me if I’m hungry or thirsty, I have to pause, am I? I actually have a hard time recognising hunger and thirst after so many years of long shifts without eating or drinking.

Need to go to the bathroom? My bladder seems to be made of steel now. Strangely, the only give away for needing to go to the bathroom is back pain now…that can’t be good…

In all seriousness, I’m slowly getting back in touch with my body and making time for myself to hydrate, eat good food and relieve myself. Also, I allow myself to be ill. It’s okay, time to rest and recover. It feels kind of luxurious.

I urge you all to recognise your humanity. Allow yourself to fulfil your physical needs. Allow yourself to be sick if you’re sick. Then, once those needs are met, we can nurture our higher level needs like emotional fulfilment.

Photo by Brittany Colette on Unsplash 

We should normalise sick days and protect our health care workers

Ideally, we should get to the point where we normalise sick days. We shouldn’t be celebrating people who work while they’re on the verge of collapsing. I’ve seen it time and time again.

Pregnant surgeons about to faint in the operating theatre, hiding it to seem tough. Workers getting medication out of the treatment room, analgesia for their aches and pains, or ondansetron for their nausea.

Hospitals need adequate sick cover. Ideally, the cover shouldn’t be someone who then has to pull an absurdly long work week.

For example, a doctor felt sick after his second COVID-19 vaccine and couldn’t come in to work. I was on my seventh day of 12.5 hour shifts, clocking up 87.5 hours that week. I had to work for the eighth day in a row to cover him, another 12.5 hour shift. Rounding me up to 100 hours total that work week.

Obviously this isn’t safe. It also means the sick cover is at risk of fatigue and illness.

“Be sick in your own time”

On thinking back to my time in the public hospital system I remembered writing about being sick in my own time. Weirdly, I’d always find myself ill on my holidays or days off. It was like my body only allowed myself to be sick when I wasn’t needed at work.

So I wrote about it and the stigma with calling in sick. Reflecting on it now, it’s sad to see how I used to feel. How down I was while working in the public hospital system. I also raised a good point – sick days will only be normalised if there’s adequate staffing.

If you want a read of my old musings keep going below:

My four day long weekend has been spent largely in bed, sleeping. Nursing a sore throat and general fatigue, keeping hydrated and popping paracetamol. As a model employee I am keeping sick days to my free time. I’m hoping I’ll wake up tomorrow magically restored with new energy. Feeling physically well, in time for my set of 5 evening shifts. It made me want to write a post on it though, how as a doctor you’re pressured into working through illness. Let’s dive into the facts, the stigma, and why it is so hard to take a day off.

In an ideal world I would call in sick tomorrow if needed, spend the day resting up in bed again. My husband is urging me to do so, but in the back of my mind I know I can’t. This year, I have used 3 sick days already (when I had a really bad outer ear infection). I know that fellow workers do not take sick calls well. Many doubt the truth and speculate about it amongst themselves at work.

Logically we know doctors can get sick

We all know it’s impossible to remain healthy for 365 days of the year, every year. It’s even more tricky to keep well when you are surrounded by illness at work.

The hospital is a veritable breeding ground for contagious disease. We can see it to an even larger scale now, with the pandemic. So many health care workers have been infected with COVID-19, with over 3000 dying from the virus.

Mix this environment of illness with long work hours, lack of sleep and stress. It’s a recipe for getting sick, and feeling physically or mentally unwell.

There are many levels to this stigma around an ill doctor. For one, doctors are meant to be infallible. We’re sometimes imagined to be an almost ‘super human’ entity that is never mistaken, and never unwell.

Imagine, your doctor actually gets the flu too? Or that stomach bug? Even more difficult to understand is a doctor with mental illness.

In terms of your co-workers, who sometimes are the harshest judges of their fellow doctors, I think it all comes down to stress and workload.

If you see your shift looming and know that you’re short staffed, and then a few doctors call up saying they’re sick, you get annoyed. You may not even care if they’re unwell, you are worried about yourself and how you’re going to cope.

A selfish reaction, but one that makes sense. You need those people there, and know the shift will be a mess without them. We all know there’ll be no replacement. You have to absorb the work amongst yourselves and hope for the best.

During one of my night shifts, one of the more senior doctors was bragging about how he went to work with a fever. He had just come home from a holiday overseas (pre-covid) and was feeling unwell. He had a shift in the emergency department and decided that there was no way in hell he would call in sick. The hero that he was, he showed up to work febrile. During the shift he collapsed, and his colleagues had to attend to him. They took blood tests, and helped him to a chair.

He boasted that his c-reactive protein was 100, his white cells elevated.

“I was sicker than the patients,” he laughed proudly.

Obviously he was sent home after that. The other doctor said something about him being impressive.

At the time I wondered, am I the only one thinking that there’s something seriously wrong with that?

Being Sick in My Own Time

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 

Let’s be the CHANGE

Let’s work to create a community that celebrates being human. A community that celebrates wellbeing and nurturing our own health too.

Healthy doctors = healthier community.

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