Browsing through Facebook this morning, I came across an e-card that several of my compadres in healthcare simultaneously posted. It features a surgeon, holding a scalpel, and reads: "I work long hours. I wear bodily fluids that aren't mine. I work weekends & holidays. I get screamed at & have my hands in other peoples' orifices. Tell me again how hard you work?" Aware that I was breathing a sigh of relief, I grabbed my second cup of coffee. The realization had just hit me...I've spent the last 27 years providing patient care in various capacities as a tech, nurse, and physician, and this is the first year I won't be barricaded inside a hospital for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's. As long as I've been working, I've worked nights, weekends, and holidays, while everyone else important to me got to enjoy being at home and sleeping in their own beds. No one wants to be on call. No one enjoys call. Therefore, I feel no shame in admitting that I've hated every minute of it, especially anesthesia call, where you're always someone else's bitch.
One year ago, I was recovering from what I then considered the catastrophic loss of my job. On November 2, 2011, just five days before my 49th birthday, my boss, a physician-attorney, nonchalantly informed me by telephone that I had to leave our practice because A) a surgeon had complained I was too rigid, and B) the overpaid CEO of The Miracle Center* didn't approve of a humorous Facebook post I'd written about the computerized medical record software the hospital had recently adopted. Why and how Kurt Stinkypants** was alerted to my Facebook page remains a mystery. Although I was never privy to the identity of that whiny surgeon, my best guess is that it involved a cancelectomy*** of some sort. In fact, I'm relatively certain it was the same general surgeon who wanted me to put a non-toxic appearing two year old boy to sleep for incision and drainage of a thigh abscess, even though the boy had a stomach full of chicken biscuit and didn't require emergent surgery. He didn't want to postpone the case until later in the evening, so he cancelled it, and then went crying to administration. Waaaaaaaaah!
Although I'd just been disposed of like a used nitrile glove, I was expected to continue working for the next 90 days, until a more suitable replacement could be found. I agreed to this under one condition: that I would no longer take any call. Right after hanging up, I sent my boss, who quelle surprise! was out of town, the following email:
Just to clarify, my understanding is that the administration is upset with me over a FB post regarding Cerner, and that some of the surgeons think I am rigid, and that is why I am being asked to leave the practice. This essentially equates to a hostile work environment, and obviously, I have grave concerns about continuing to provide services there. I will be willing to work the remaining 90 days, provided I do not take any call, effective today. I think it is shocking and wrong that a benign FB post about an electronic medical record, which is not unique to this hospital, leads to me being asked to leave without an opportunity to defend myself.
I checked and re-checked my e-mail and cell phone a zillion times that evening, but never received a response. My next scheduled 24 hours of call was Saturday, November 5th, and as far as I was concerned, Boss Man was looking at some major restructuring of on-call responsibilities because I was DONE! I don't know how I did it, but I went into work the next morning. I was still in shock. Everything felt mechanical, a slow motion masquerade of once-familiar faces and surroundings, suddenly distanced by a fortuitous fracture in time, the discontinuity of which threatened to vaporize every last shred of dignity I possessed. Somehow, I made it through that day. I told a few co-workers about what had happened, and it wasn't long before word got out that, come January, I'd be leaving Rome. I spent the remainder of that afternoon and evening, crying inconsolably and freaking out. What was I going to do? At my insistence, Spartacus had just quit his job, and in three months, I would be unemployed as well. Rome was a small town, saturated with anesthesiologists, and unless I wanted to commute like I did when we were still living in Atlanta, we were going to have to move again.
On November 4th, I finally received this e-mailed response from my boss:
I cannot permit this. You are obligated to cover your call as scheduled. You cannot simply announce to your colleagues that you’re not going to take your call and lay the burden at their doorstep. The consequences of this action will be dire!
Long story short, I immediately plunged into a mercifully brief, albeit suicidal, depression. I showed up for my 24 hours of call the next morning, and I've gotta say, there's nothing quite like Saturday anesthesia call at the Miracle Center to make you seriously consider jumping off a bridge. It's like picnicking in hell. My emotions were all over the place, vacillating between rage, humiliation, and utter despair. I couldn't stop crying. I was literally running on fumes from the few hours of crappy sleep I'd managed to snag, courtesy of my last remaining 10 mg Ambien tablet, which I'd desperately rationed into four nearly inert fragments. I've never been that distraught before, and it scared me. I think it scared my partner, Steve, too. Because my boss had called all the partners in our practice, telling them I was refusing to take call, Steve had taken it upon himself to cover for me in case I decided not to come in to work. Someone had to take care of the patients. He took one look at me, and my anguished hysteria, and told me to go home. On November 11, I formally resigned.
My last call was Thanksgiving weekend, the oh-so-delightful Friday/Sunday combo. As you might imagine, it was a suckfest, but by then, I'd at least gotten through the worst of my depression, my anger having begun its dissolution into a resolve so transformative and compelling that life hasn't been the same since. It finally dawned on me that I wasn't trapped. For years, Allen, my dear friend and former colleague had patiently listened to me complain about feeling trapped, like a caged bird, both personally and professionally. Even though I wasn't happy, I'd convinced myself that I couldn't be happy anywhere else, that I was stuck. "Sweetheart," he'd say reassuringly in his refined South Carolina drawl, "you are never trapped. You can do whatever you want to do! You just have to believe it."
I'm not sure why it took me so long to grasp the importance of Allen's message that indeed, I was indomitable. Better late than never, I suppose. In my case, it took a life-altering event for his wisdom to crystallize into awareness. As I walked out of The Miracle Center on that chilly November Monday morning after completing my last call ever, two things occurred to me: I wasn't trapped, and perhaps even more importantly, I've always been free.
|The Reverend Dr. Allen N. Gustin, Jr. (left), who became ordained just to marry me and Spartacus! This photo was taken moments before our wedding on October 24, 2009.|
*facility name changed
**CEO's name slightly modified
***cancelectomy: when a surgical case is cancelled for various reasons, not the least of which is concern for patient safety