I am so, so thankful to be pregnant, and that it’s been another uneventful pregnancy (knock on wood). I am grateful for all the family help I have at home- it’s really a little village raising our son. And I am acutely aware that the warm, flexible, pro-mom, super-supportive work environment I enjoy is a rarity for doctor-moms, especially for those of us practicing primary care.
But really, I am dragging. I’m trying, but every day is a slog. This Friday was tough. Friday is my long day: 2 clinical sessions, morning and afternoon. I need to get to work early, like 7 am-ish, to get ahead on paperwork and read through the charts of the patients I will be seeing that day. Then I typically see about 16 or 17 patients, a mix of physicals, new patients and problem visits. This mixed in with the patient phone calls and emails, lab and imaging results checking, pharmacy requests, specialist and therapist phone calls…. Then I need to fight traffic. By 7 pm, when I get home to my mini “second shift”, I am asleep as soon as Babyboy is in his crib.
But I also need to make a distinction here: while I am fatigued up the wazoo, I am not burned-out.
Other practices make doctors see more patients than I see in a day. I also enjoy an unusual amount of time per patient visit- 20 minutes for problems and 40 minutes for a physical for a person over age 40. I insisted on that extra time. We also enjoy amazing nurse triage and front desk support. Many of my colleagues in primary care, especially at other hospitals, have 10 minutes for a problem visit and 20 minutes for a physical, with absolute numbers of patients seen per session much higher than what I am doing, and far less support. I don’t know how they can function.
Also, in primary care, there is the complexity of the unpredictable: you never know who is going to walk in the door, or with what. The issues can vary wildly and widely over the course of one day. Friday, I saw a distressed young lady with pelvic pain; an asthmatic who was pretty close to needing an emergency room; an unfortunate woman with a skin-picking psychosis who was infected yet again; several folks for physicals with multiple complicated medical issues such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, all essential to address at their physical; a man with groin pain and a possible hernia; a young man with hepatitis c and depression; a lady with diabetes and pneumonia; several folks with sinus issues, but all with varying degrees of severity and comorbidities, etc , etc…
In addition to the variety, many patients and issues are not straightforward, and require reading in UpToDate (an online medical textbook) or going to the research literature, or paging a subspecialist to get a handle on what to do. Sometimes I have to send patients for x-rays or labs, and then revisit their case later in the day. Occasionally, a patient needs to be seen urgently by orthopedics for a fracture that I diagnosed, or sent to the emergency room after my evaluation, and I have to arrange those transfers. How could anyone handle a patient every ten or twenty minutes, with all of that going on? I imagine many things do not get addressed, and it must feel like a factory.
Then, always in primary care, there is the “after-work” work. The urgent labs and imaging that you and only you can really deal with. Phone calls- we are on call for ourselves 24 hours a day Monday through Friday. Fretting- wondering, Am I missing something? Am I serving this or that patient well enough? In this business, the work day doesn’t really end at the end of the work day.
This is why, at a recent lunch with a group of five female friends who trained in primary care, every single one has left or is leaving primary care for hospitalist (shift) work, research, or administration. “Burnout” was the biggest reason, as well as “better hours for family”.
So, in short, while there are plenty of reasons for me to be headed towards burnout, I am NOT. I actually enjoy seeing my patients- even with all these issues, and when I’m “massively hugely pregnant” (as one of our nurses pronounced me recently). Between my luxuriously long patient care encounters, a good support staff, a positive environment (with a great maternity leave policy, I might add), and being part-time (I work 5 clinical sessions a week), I am still liking my job! Even the long Fridays.
Still, I recognize that my emotional energy and physical stamina are not at their peak… I waddle to and fro; just getting up and performing a physical makes me short of breath; my back hurts when I sit and my feet hurt when I stand; I have near-constant reflux; I have to go pee every 20 minutes; I’m always sweaty and can’t wear a white coat for the life of me… All of these things are totally natural at this stage of pregnancy, and they also make a clinical session that much harder.
Thankfully, the vast majority of patients have been wonderfully, surprisingly supportive. I love the friendly pregnancy-themed banter at the beginning of just about every visit for everything. Even the diabetic lady with pneumonia had to (rather breathlessly) ask me all the requisite baby-queries: When am I due, what is it, do we have names picked out yet, do I have other kids, how does Babyboy feel about this impending disruption? I can answer all of these in my sleep at this point, but it’s still enjoyable when these relative strangers take such an interest in my own life.
And then, the beautiful thing-- most everyone shares a bit about their pregnancies, or kids, or nieces and nephews, or grandkids. This big belly of mine is the perfect icebreaker.
So, as tired as I am- and it’s a bone-weary, molasses-moving, heavy-duty tired- I am so glad that I am where I am, doing what I am doing, and expecting a little girl, in 6 weeks.