So despite the fact that this blog is entitled The South African Intern, I have actually completed my internship and am currently undergoing my compulsory year of community service. The process of community service works like this: in the August prior to your community service year you send an application form to the Department of Health. You apply to five hospitals or clinics within South Africa where you would like to work, and you hope for the best. Despite crossing all my fingers and toes that I would get one of my five choices, I was sadly ‘second rounded’. Which basically means they couldn’t place you at any of your first five choices, and so you must reapply from a now much shorter list. So reapply I did, and third rounded I was. At the beginning of December last year I still had no clue where I would be spending my community service year. Luckily the stars aligned and I was offered a post in Gauteng, for which I was extremely grateful. BUT (and here’s the thing) it wasn’t in a place or position I would ever have chosen. I had great dreams and aspirations of how I would spend my community service year, which included moving to Cape Town and working in anaesthetics, and this new post was very, very different.
So I entered 2016, and my year of community service, feeling let down and disappointed. I was determined to make the most of the situation I was in and remain upbeat, but it soon became clear to me that that would be more difficult than I had realised. The place in which I’m working does not make me overly happy. I don’t feel challenged or excited in my job right now, and often it feels like the only reason I’m at work is to push a queue of patients so we can all leave at four o’ clock. I see many of my friends and colleagues advancing their careers by working in the departments they want to specialise in, studying for important exams and so on, and I can’t help but feel a tinge of envy. Ah, jealousy. That ugly green-eyed monster.
So given the way I was feeling, it’s not surprising that I would take this out on the poor patients. When someone walks in complaining of a headache for one day or a runny nose, my immediate reaction is irritation. I treat the patients in a respectful manner but cannot seem to extend any extra kindness towards them. I’m so busy sitting in my own negative space that the care I give my patients seems to come from a negative place too. This is not the kind of doctor I want to be. This is not the KIND DOCTOR I want to be. Then I get so wrapped up in feeling guilty about my behaviour and annoyed at myself and my shitty situation and then it all just sits inside of me like a big black knot of ugliness. Yuck.
But then the universe, being so wise and gracious, sent me a great message in the form of a yoga class. At the end of the class the instructor closed with this: Be kind to yourself so you can be kind to others. Wow. WOW! I was so busy being unkind to myself that it’s no wonder I was feeling like I was being unkind towards others. I know this sounds really simple, and how I couldn’t figure this out for myself I don’t know. But there it was. So profound, and I just wanted to give that instructor a big hug.
It really got me thinking though about how, in general, doctors are not especially good at being kind to ourselves. The majority of us are serious A-type, hypercritical perfectionists. Whenever we don’t perform in the way we think we should, we put ourselves down. In the same vein, doctors are so unkind to each other. If you’ve ever sat in a surgery morbidity and mortality meeting you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. As a profession we are so quick to point out when others make mistakes or screw up, I think because we ourselves are so afraid of making that same mistake. We end up being unkind to each other because we are always being unkind to ourselves.
The other terrible thing doctors do to ourselves is withholding all our basic needs in order to care for patients. We suture and mend and counsel and dispense so that our patients may have the best possible health available to them. In doing so many of us neglect our own health. We eat terribly. We drink too much coffee and red bull to stay awake. We don’t exercise enough. We don’t sleep enough. We don’t care for ourselves enough. We take our bodies for granted and we don’t offer ourselves an ounce of grace or kindness.
I’m really working on being kinder to myself. I’m trying not to sit with my negative thoughts. I’m trying to feel less guilty when I take a lunch break and patients have to wait. And you know what? I’m a nicer person. When I have a tummy full of nutritious food and a mind that’s not riddled with anxiety I can be the kind doctor I want to be.
So I implore all of you, but especially doctors (I’m including myself in this): be kind to yourself, so you can be kind to others ❤