In a video posted to TikTok by the comedian Dr Will Flanary, better known to his followers as Dr Glaucomflecken, he imitates a neurosurgical residency interview. With glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, Dr Glaucomflecken poses as the attending, asking: "What are your weaknesses?"
The residency applicant answers without hesitation: "My physiological need for sleep." "What are your strengths?" The resident replies with the hard, steely stare of the determined and uninitiated: "My desire to eliminate my physiological need for sleep."
If you follow Dr Glaucomflecken on Twitter, you might know the skit I'm referencing. For many physicians and physicians-in-training, what makes the satire successful is its reflection of reality.
Many things have changed in medicine since his time, but the tired trope of the sleepless surgeon hangs on. Undaunted, I spent my second and third year of medical school accumulating accolades, conducting research, and connecting with mentors with the singular goal of joining the surgical ranks.
Midway through my third year, I completed a month-long surgical subinternship designed to give students a taste of what life would look like as an intern. I loved the operating room; it felt like the difference between being on dry land and being underwater. There were fewer distractions — your patient in the spotlight while everything else receded to the shadows.
However, as the month wore on, something stronger took hold. I couldn't keep my eyes open in the darkened operating rooms and had to decline stools, fearing that I would fall asleep if I sat down.
On early morning prerounds, it's 4:50 AM when I glance at the clock and pull back the curtain, already apologizing. My patient rolls over, flashing a wry smile. "Do you ever go home?" I've seen residents respond to this exact question in various ways. I live here. Yes. No. Soon. Not enough. My partner doesn't think so.
There are days and, yes, years when we are led to believe this is what we live for: to be constantly available to our patients. It feels like a hollow victory when the patient, 2 days out from a total colectomy, begins to worry about your personal life. I ask her how she slept (not enough), any fevers (no), vomiting (no), urinating (I pause — she has a catheter).
My favorite part of these early morning rounds is the pause in my scripted litany of questions to listen to heart and lungs. It never fails to feel sacred: patients become so quiet and still that I can't help but think they have faith in me. Without prompting, she slides the back of her hospital gown forward like a curtain, already taking deep breaths so I can hear her lungs.
I look outside. The streetlights are still on, and from the seventh-floor window, I can watch staff making their way through the sliding double-doors, just beyond the yellowed pools of streetlight. I smile. I love medicine. I'm so tired.
For many in medicine, we are treated, and thus behave, as though our ability to manipulate physiology should also apply within the borders of our bodies: commanding less sleep, food, or bathroom breaks.
It places healthcare workers solidly in the realm of superhuman, living beyond one's corporeal needs. The pandemic only heightened this misappropriation — adding hero and setting out a pedestal for healthcare workers to make their ungainly ascent. This kind of unsolicited admiration implicitly implies inhumanness, an otherness.
What would it look like if we started treating ourselves less like physicians and more like patients? I wish I was offering a solution, but really this is just a story. Maybe it's not more sleep you need but something just as critical to the delicate physiologic and psychologic scales of well-being.
To students rising through the ranks of medical training, identify what it is you need early and often. I can count on one hand how many physicians I've seen take a lunch break — even 10 minutes. Embrace hard work and self-preservation equally. My hope is that if enough of us take this path, it just might become a matter of course.
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Cite this: Liana Meffert. What Are Your Weaknesses? - Medscape - Jul 20, 2022.