How ill do you have to be?
Posted on 12 November 2012 by Zara Ford
As I entered the house, I was hit by a terrible smell. I ran to the bathroom and vomited. It was norovirus season
On inspection of the kitchen, I discovered to my horror that the source of the smell was the charred remains of my dinner. Instead of turning the cooker off completely, I’d managed to turn it down only a bit, and now the blackened residue of sun-dried tomato sauce was welded to the bottom of the saucepan.
I quickly turned it off, thinking how lucky I was that I’d come home early. It was my parents’ house, and I could have killed members of my own family. Except my parents were on holiday in China and I had been left in charge of their beloved cat.
My shift had finished at 2am and I’d returned to the department for teaching at 8am. After that, I’d gone to bed before getting up to cook myself a meal.
I’d felt unwell, but assumed I was just tired. After an hour or so at work, it became clear that this was a bit more than the fallout from a late night. I told my consultant and drove myself home.
But how ill do you have to be before taking a day off? Should you ever be off because of a cold? I haven’t been, but I do wonder whether I should have dragged myself in to work on the day when a bad cold brought on a visit from my childhood nemesis, the unstoppable nosebleed, and ended in a trip to the emergency department.
Doctors pride themselves on their stoicism. Everyone knows someone who’s worked until they were 80 and never had a day off. These people are constant, reliable and universally admired. But is this realistic? We also hear stories of people who’ve pitched up to work despite being unwell.
Attitudes to sickness absence can be unhelpful. I was once summoned to an occupational health interview when I started a job. The nurse underlined my longest period of time off work after my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It was a blurred few weeks of scans, surgery and complications. ‘This predicts your future sickness absence,’ she said. I told her that I wasn’t planning on making a habit of complicated miscarriages.
As a child, I used to wonder how doctors saw sick people all the time and never got ill themselves. Now I know they do. No one wants to let people down. After all, being off sick is inconvenient for colleagues and patients. But it is important for doctors to retain insight into how unwell we actually are, and ask ourselves whether we are well enough to treat patients, drive to work or cook our dinners safely.
Zara Jones is a specialty trainee
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