Dec 4 2008
Dear Dr. Austin,
A dear friend of mine is a doctor. She and I graduated together over twenty years ago from UNC-Chapel Hill. I went into my profession and she headed off to medical school. Then came her internship and finally residency. The whole time she was struggling through her learning and training to become a doctor, she would occasionally moan, “I should have done what you did. I’d have a life. I’d sleep at night. I wouldn’t have to deal with patients who show up in the ER complaining that they slept crooked last night and now they have a crick in their neck.” Life’s a little better for her now that she’s an attending but the slog to get there was long and hard.
So when I read about your experiences in medical school, in training and doing your day-to-day (or evening-to-night, or night-to-morning) job in the emergency room, I had to laugh, nod and grimace as I remembered what she’d told me years ago. Yes, I know what the SCUT Monkey Manual is. I’ve laughed at the stupid things interns will do as they’re learning the actual nuts and bolts of their new profession. I’ve marveled at the fact that doctors can retain their humanity after 36 hours with almost no sleep and I’m in awe of how the good ones can still comfort their patients – even the unlovable ones – even as they try and fix what’s wrong with them. And even if it’s something the patient brought on him or herself.
I’m also in awe of your gut wrenching honesty, not only about your job and your thoughts on the patients you’ve seen, the people you work with and the situations in which you’ve found yourself, but also your personal life. I’m not sure I could open up that much of myself to total strangers to read about. Bravas to your wife for not crossing out much of what you wrote on how being an ER doctor has impacted her life. My parents are friends with my childhood pediatrician and his wife and have watched them struggle to maintain their marriage over the years. The friend who recommended this book to me used to be married to an ER doctor. Note the past tense.
Having done some shift work in my time, I can totally understand the need to sleep after working night shift. I used to get comments from people that “you must get so much done since you’re off all day.” Some of them never did truly grasp the concept that if you work all night, then you gotta sleep sometime and that time is when they think you’re happily sunning by the pool or shopping or watching daytime TV.
For anyone contemplating becoming a doctor, I think your book should be suggested reading. For anyone who’s ever sat in an ER waiting room wondering why it’s taking so damn long to be seen, here’s the answer. For an honest view of the stresses the people who work in most American emergency rooms endure, take a look here. I’m glad I did. B+