It's my first overnight call in the hospital. It's 7pm and I've been at work for 13 hours. There are 16 more hours to go. My arms are halfway through the portholes of an isolette and my hands are cradling the tiny hand of one of my patients who needs a blood culture and screening labs. I am shush-shush-shush-ing the baby as I choose my spot, swab it with alcohol, and pierce the skin quickly and definitively, trying to cause as little pain as possible. My pager phone is buzzing and beeping against my hip, the nurses are mobilizing, talking, helping each other do all the things this sick baby needs done, but for the moment it is just me and this hand and the artery that is hidden a few milimeters beneath the skin. After a few adjustments of the needle, the red arterial blood flashes into the needle, travels up the tubing, and begins to fill the syringe. My shoulders start to unknit themselves and I take what feels like my first breath in a while. Thirty seconds pass as the syringe slowly fills. There's nothing else I can do for the moment but stand here. I haven't stopped moving and doing and thinking and worrying for the past 13 hours, so this feels like a break. The baby is chewing on his pacifier, looking around for the source of the sting, and our eyes meet for a moment before the blood hits the 2cc mark and I retract the needle into its hub. "Thanks, little man," I whisper to him softly, grateful to have gotten the blood, grateful that I don't have to cause him more pain with a second stick, grateful that I don't have to call the fellow to come and help me, grateful for the couple of breaths I took and whatever small thing passed between us. In the time it took for the stick -- no more than three or four minutes -- four new pages have come through and I am needed in four places at once and I don't breathe again until well after midnight.
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The most recent change in the ACGME medical training rules happened when I was a fourth year medical student. At the time, all the protest over the limitation of interns to 16 hour shifts seemed silly to me. How could anyone protest a seemingly more humane schedule? What was the big deal? Then I got to intern year and began to understand the widespread dissent. The day-float, night-float system featured constant signout -- on long call days, I would spend 2-3 hours of my day signing out. I worked 13, 14, 15 hours six days a week, enduring the pain of long separations from my child, often staying up late working on notes and discharge summaries -- and still there was never enough time to see patients, with rounds and conferences and notes and sign out and the endless to-do lists. Most disturbingly, I felt like I wasn't learning as much as I expected. Admitting a patient was more a matter of administrative work. There was never the opportunity to travel with the patient through the process of diagnosis and treatment. At best I would put in the initial orders, then sign the patient out to the night person. Nights were a little better, with more opportunity to actually see patients and think about them, but six consecutive 15 hour days left me feeling exhausted and was hugely disruptive to my family. I began to feel resentful all the time. Worse, I began to forget why I went into medicine in the first place.
As second year neared, I was filled with both apprehension (would I actually be able to function for 30 hours in a row?) and excitement for the switch to a Q4 overnight call schedule. What was I looking forward to? The time to actually see patients. The chance to spend at least one out of every four afternoons with my daughter. The chance to admit and then follow my own patients instead of picking up overnight admissions and shuffling patients when one or another team member switched to nights. The sense of mastery that would come with being able to manage patients by myself overnight. I was hoping to fall in love with medicine again.
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It's 3:30am and even though I should be trying to catch a little sleep during a lull, I am worrying about sodium. One of my patients has a sodium of 129. It's not low enough to panic, but it's not normal. It's not low enough to call the fellow who has probably already gone to lie down but it's low enough to make me lie awake in the dark, wondering if I should intervene or not intervene, wondering if I should call the fellow or not, feeling like this is the kind of problem I should be able to solve on my own. I get up and turn on the light in the small call room and set about reading about neonatal hyponatremia, which confirms that the baby is not in danger. I could go down on his fluids, but he is losing more than the typical amount of fluid through his unrepaired myeloschesis and there has been concern all day for poor urine output. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that he is fluid down with a sodium of 129. I go around and around in my head, weighing the sodium level against the risk of insensible fluid loss. I decide to recheck a level in the morning and leave the fluids where they are. It's a small decision but it keeps me tossing and turning for the interrupted hour and a half I have to rest before the morning work starts. When the BMP pops up at 6am, my heart catches in my throat for a moment. What if his sodium is 121? It's 130. On rounds later in the morning, we decide to leave the fluids where they are. For the team it's a small decision -- no one even notices -- but for me it's the end of an arc of learning: how to tolerate the anxiety of uncertainty, how to make a clinical decision when there are no protocols to follow, how to think through a problem and come up with a safe solution. If I had been there with a senior resident, I would have just asked them and they would have changed the fluids or not changed the fluids. I would have slept better. But I would have been no farther along in my ability to take care of patients independently.
Post-call rounding is a whole new experience. I know all the patients and what has happened to them over the past 24 hours. I was there yesterday when decisions were made on rounds and I watched these decisions play out. I have listened to these lungs, stared at these monitors, felt these bellies all night long. I am the one who was here. For the first time, none of the patients on rounds are new to me -- they are all mine. I have the opportunity to get feedback from the attending about my overnight decisions, learning that will stick with me forever. Even though I am exhausted, it is exhilarating. I go home, sleep for a few hours in the afternoon, then have the incredible treat of going to pick my daughter up at day care, something I could almost never do on the intern schedule. I have a normal evening with my family, full of all the quotidian details of dinner, bath, and bedtime that are my secret paradise. By the next morning, I am ready to dive back in.
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The new duty hour rules were well intentioned, designed to keep patients safe and minimize the ill effects of sleep deprivation. But I think there needs to be some consideration of what may have been lost. The danger of sleep deprivation has to be balanced again the the burn-out associated with the relentless march of long days without the high-yield learning and sense of connection to patients bourne of the shared journey of an entire day. Being awake for 30 hours is hard. But feeling like a mediocre doctor while seeing my family for an hour a day for most days every month was much, much harder.
I'm curious to what other people think about the "new" (now not so new) duty hours.