When I Really Needed a Hand

*Warning: this post contains graphic descriptions not suitable for the squeamish

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Christmas Eve (nearly 10 years ago)

Hand trauma call on Christmas Eve was always busy. Typical presentations included people who cut their hands with Stanley knives wrapping or making presents, housewives with stab wounds in the left palm, mostly from the knives slipping whilst they were trying to wedge an avocado seed out (use a spoon, ladies!), or clueless men who cut their fingers trying to open a can without a can-opener. Work was steady, I had been running between admitting patients in ED (Emergency Department) and operating in theatres all day. I was a junior registrar, only nearing the end of my second year training in plastic surgery. There was not a lot a second-year was supposed to do without senior supervision, however, I had been on this hand surgery team for nearly 12 months now, so I was accustomed to performing routine hand trauma surgery such as infections, lacerations, tendon repairs and simple fractures without calling my senior registrar in.

Our on call had two tiers – if I was out of my depth, I was to call the senior registrar (a final year trainee), who usually came in to give me a hand. If he/she needed help, then the consultant plastic surgeon on duty was called for either over-the-phone advice or had to physically turn up at the hospital. The nurses and other doctors could also bypass the junior registrar to call either the senior registrar or consultant if they felt that the junior was out of his/her depth, or doing something that may have not been in the best interest of the patient. Rarely, the consultants were required to be on site, apart from major complex hand trauma cases, which luckily were far and few in between. This was because our country had very strict firearm laws, motorcyclists also had to wear protective gloves by law and it was illegal to buy fireworks and firecrackers without a licence.

The senior registrar I was on call with was two weeks short of becoming a consultant. He had just passed his specialist exams and was finishing off his final rotation. Throughout the year I had been on call with Peter several times, and I knew he did not like to operate late at night. I had learnt to book all the more complex cases in the mornings and avoided doing procedures I was not comfortable with at night in case I needed him. As for the consultant who was on call over the Christmas weekend, Dr H, he lived by the motto: ‘Don’t be afraid to cope’. His phone was only to be used for nothing short of life and death. He never came in on call, unless the patient had private health insurance and was willing to pay for their surgery. It was unheard of for a junior registrar to call him directly, we valued our lives too much.

Back to my Christmas Eve, the day was progressing smoothly – at one stage, it looked as if I may even get home for Christmas Eve dinner. As I was writing up the last operating notes for the day, my pager went off. The tone indicated that it was a trauma call from ED. Probably another car accident. Guilt flooded me, but I couldn’t help smiling. This meant that no other cases could proceed unless it was life-threatening, and most likely this particular trauma case, if it made it to the operating theatre, will keep the emergency theatre occupied until early hours of the morning – therefore I could not do anymore hand cases tonight, even if they started piling up in Emergency. A trauma call at 7pm not only meant that I could go home for dinner, but that I may also get to sleep through the night! My steps lightened as I headed towards the ward to see my postop patients before heading home.

As I was about to finish the evening round, my pager went off again. This time with a phone extension from ED. I shrugged, whatever they were holding down there will have to wait until the morning when the trauma case is over. I headed to the desk and punched the numbers into the phone. ‘Tiff here, what you got?’

‘Oh, Tiff,’ it was the trauma reg on call. ‘Hey, I am so sorry mate, but I think this one is going to be all yours. You are going to love it, consider it my Christmas present to you.’ An evil chuckle followed.

I raised an eyebrow. We rarely get involved in trauma calls. Even if the patient had concurrent hand injuries, we only ever get the call a few days later when their main injuries have been taken care of.

I sighed, ‘I am on my way.’ With heavy footsteps and visualising all my evening plans disappear above my head in an imaginary puff of smoke, I headed to the elevator.

My colleague was not wrong. The patient was cleared of any serious injuries. The only trauma he suffered was that to his right hand. Mr D was a 65 year old right handed, retired lawyer. He was finishing off a rocking horse he made for his 6 year old grandson. He found the handle a little loose, so decided to re-fashion the rounded piece. However, when he was trimming it with a bench-top mounted circular saw, the wooden rod slipped and he ended up putting all four fingers through the saw instead. They were all taken off at base and was handed over to me unceremoniously by the nurse in a plastic bag.

After meeting the fingers, I went in to introduce myself to Mr D, noting that his injured hand was wrapped up firmly like a boxing glove to try and stem any bleeding. I looked at his x-rays of both the hand stump as well as amputated parts to assess both the level of amputation and the metal work that may be required to reattach the digits. After having had a serious chat with Mr D, I took the bag into another room and laid all four amputated fingers on the bench top. Then I took a marker and printed on each finger which ones they were. I checked the amputated ends and silently offered a prayer of thanks that the saw was high speed and sharp, as all four fingers showed clean guillotine-type amputation rather than avulsion-type injuries associated with slow oscillating saws. The latter usually involved more extensive injuries to tendons, nerves and vessels which often make replantation difficult with very poor outcomes. Even though the prognosis was looking good for Mr D, my heart sank. Replant surgery took hours to perform; one finger alone could take up to 4 hours, and I was looking at 4 fingers. There was no contraindication for me not to replant any of the fingers, as all of them looked clean-cut and despite his age, Mr D was otherwise fit and healthy, thus suitable for a long anaesthetic.

I checked Mr D’s details and smiled when I realised that he had private health insurance. Dr H would love this case, it was well known that replantation of a finger was well-paid by insurance companies. Remuneration for four fingers would be equivalent to almost a whole year’s private school fee for one child. I picked up the phone and rang Peter. He was also glad to hear that the patient had private health insurance, and promptly asked me to ring Dr H. I protested, as it wasn’t appropriate for me to contact the consultant directly. Peter said that since Dr H will have to come in to do the surgery anyway, there was no point for him to see the patient, and if he hadn’t seen the patient, he didn’t know enough details to talk to Dr H. He told me that Dr H would be pleased to hear from me.

I was naïve and believed him.

So I rang Dr H. At 8pm Christmas Eve.

To say that the conversation was unpleasant would have been an understatement. Dr H was livid that I had contacted him. He told me that he was having Christmas Eve dinner with his family and had no interest whatsoever spending the night operating. He was not interested in the patient’s insurance cover, and if the patient had presented at a public hospital, then he was to be treated as a public patient by training registrars regardless of his insurance status. Dr H then told me that under no circumstances was I to call him again directly, especially about this case. I could almost hear the phone being slammed down when the disconnection clicked in my ears.

I called Peter, as this is going to be a major complex case, so he had to come in. There was no way I was expected to carry out this surgery on my own even though I have read this procedure in detail and knew the basic principles. In practical terms, however, I had only seen two similar cases performed before and assisted in one. This was definitely not an operation that followed the rule of surgical training of ‘see one, do one, teach one’. Only the most senior of trainees were allowed to perform it unsupervised.

When I told Peter about my conversation with Dr H, he swore and made disparaging comments about lazy consultants. He then told me that he was having Christmas Eve dinner and he couldn’t possibly get away, so I would just have attempt the surgery on my own. I almost dropped the phone in shock, and protested that I was too junior to take on such a case. He told me that he is more than happy to talk me through it and give me advice on the phone, but he could not physically come into the hospital. I glanced at the clock as we were talking and realised that it was nearly 8.30pm. This meant that warm ischemic time for the fingers was over 2 hours now (as his injury was around 6.30pm). Warm ischemic time referred to the amount of time the fingers had been without blood supply while it was not on ice. If the fingers were to have the best chance of survival, they needed to be reattached within 6-8 hours of warm ischaemic time. Whereas cold ischaemic time could be extended to 24 hours. However, there had always been controversy associated with reperfusion injury and poor nerve regeneration with prolonged cold ischaemia.

I knew that staying on the phone arguing with Peter was delaying Mr D’s treatment, so I finally acquiesced to Peter’s request (much to his relief), and finished the phone call. I quickly documented both phone calls in Mr D’s chart and then rang theatres to let them know that he was coming up for a very long surgical procedure. While the transfer was taking place, I went to the office and pulled the hand surgery books off the shelf (this was before Google days). I quickly familiarised myself with the chapter of replantation again. Then I took the bag of fingers with me to the operating theatre. The nurses were still preparing equipment and the anaesthetist was just starting to put Mr D to sleep, so I set up an operating table in the corner, cleaned and tagged all the nerves and vessels at the amputated end with micro-sutures under the microscope, to save me time later on looking for them.

I knew I only had 4-6 hours to re-establish blood flow into these fingers. I also knew that if I did not plan this well, it would be at least 12-16 hours before I could get them all perfused, as normally it would take around 4 hours just to complete a one-finger replantation. So I devised a strategy in my head, part of which included planning ahead. Firstly I made sure all the equipment I required were ready to go, then I got a bucket of ice and put the fingers (wrapped in plastic) in it. I was trying to buy an extra hour or two by swapping warm ischaemic for cold ischaemic time.

As soon as the patient was asleep, I inflated the tourniquet on the patient’s arm, to stop any blood flow into the hand so that I could work in a bloodless field (and see what I was doing more clearly). I prepared the stumps on the hand and again tagged all structures under the microscope ready to be joined to the other end. Then, under x-ray guidance, I reattached all of the fingers with wires to realign the bones. This was achieved within 2 hours. Then I had to let the tourniquet off, as stopping blood flow to the arm for more than two hours could cause muscle damage in the arm and hand. Often if we needed to have the tourniquet on for more than 2 hours, we allowed blood reflow for 15 minutes between each tourniquet period; this was sufficient to minimise any lasting damaging. So I wrapped the hand tightly in a bandage to prevent excessive blood loss and un-scrubbed for quick coffee break while the tourniquet was down. I knew that for me to work efficiently, I needed to be alert at each stages of surgery, so I deliberately planned to use these reflow times as my breaks.

After 15 minutes, I spent the next 2 hours of tourniquet time repairing the tendons. There were two tendons in each finger, so that meant repairing 8 tendons altogether. Unfortunately when the tendons were cut under tension (as it was when one’s hand was gripping an object), the tendons retracted into the palm. Luckily I had thought of this during my stump preparation earlier on (while the fingers were on ice), thus I had already dissected out each tendon and pulled them back out, ready to be reattached.

At this point, I am sure most of you would be wondering why I didn’t join up the blood vessels first – if re-establishing blood flow into the fingers was so important to be done in a timely manner. Well, the reason was that both the bony and tendon work required a lot of retraction and manipulation of the fingers. If I had rejoined the blood vessels first (which were around 1-2mm in diameter and the threads we used to sew them together were thinner than human hair), then any traction or movement would have easily disrupted the repair. The repairs were also too frail to hold together unless there was some form of structural stabilisation of the fingers. The easiest way to explain it would be to equate it to constructing a building; one wouldn’t put the plumbing in place until the walls, beams, struts and foundations have been established.

Once all eight tendons were adequately joined, it was time to let the tourniquet down again. This was perfectly in plan with joining up the arteries (which brought blood flow into the fingers). Each of the fingers had two of everything, two arteries, two veins (vessels which allowed blood to flow out of the fingers), and two nerves. Arteries were best joined when the tourniquet was off, as blood flow often dilated these tiny vessels, thus made it easier to identify and place the stitches. I worked furiously under the microscope, with the aim to connect up only one artery in each finger as quickly as I could, thus to re-established blood flow into them within 8 hours of total ischaemic time. I breathed a sigh of relief when all four finger became pink on the table. I looked up and it was just before 2am. Then, at a less pressured pace, over the next 4 hours while the fingers were happily alive, I connected up the rest of the arteries, veins and nerves.

Unbeknownst to me, during those 10 hours as I was working quietly away, phone calls were being made outside. The nurses and anaesthetic staff were aghast that a second year trainee was attempting this procedure alone. The operating theatre nurse manager called Dr H and told him that I was performing the case on my own. Dr H told her that it was Peter she needed to ring. Peter was rung, and he told them that I had said I was happy to do the case alone and did not need him. He reassured her that he would have come in if I was having trouble. The nurse manager did at one stage poke her head in and asked if I was ok, and I just assumed it was a courtesy visit so I told her I was fine. Peter then rang the operating theatre about midnight to ask how I was going, he spoke to the nurse who picked up the phone. The nurse offered to put me on to speak to him directly, he declined. Apparently he didn’t want to speak to me and just wanted her to pass on a message. The message was that he was about to go to bed and if I was struggling, or feeling tired, I was to put whichever fingers I hadn’t attached back in the fridge on ice and rebook the patient for surgery tomorrow so that he could reattach the remainder fingers in morning. I snorted at the message in a very unladylike manner (much to everyone’s amusement as it matched their sentiments exactly) and kept going. No one made another phone call after that.

So the fingers lived. Mr D had the full hand of fingers to compliment his uninjured thumb when he left hospital 5 days later. He had a long road of rehabilitation ahead of him, but he was thankful that we managed to save all of them. I got called into the office by the Head of Department (HOD) on that same day as Mr D was discharged. The HOD had received an incident report from the Nurse Manager about how inappropriate it was for such a major complex case to be done by a junior doctor alone. I received a thirty minute lecture about biting off more than I could chew as a junior trainee, followed by another fifteen minutes on learning to know my limitations and recognising the need to ask for assistance.

A few days later, at the end of my last clinic with the team, I saw both Dr H and Peter being pulled into the office with the HOD. I asked the nurses what was going on and they told me that the HOD saw Mr D’s chart in clinic and asked them why this patient was in a public clinic when he was privately insured. All the nurses avoided giving him an answer so he flipped through the admission notes himself.

The following week, I had already moved onto another rotation at a different plastic surgery unit when I received my assessment report. I read, with surprise, what the HOD had written:

Tiffany improved well above her training level as a second year trainee during the last 12 months. She showed initiative in difficult situations and exhibited good insight in her abilities. She demonstrated natural aptitude in microsurgery. I would strongly recommend her for ongoing training with any plastic surgery unit.

Peter became a consultant and moved in with Dr H as his partner in private practice.

The Myth of being Plastic Fantastic

Some days I am a little sick of the stereotyping inflicted on me as a Plastic Surgeon, so I am here to put all the urban legends  to rest. There are plenty of myths about plastic surgery from both public ignorance and misconceptions established by shows such as ‘Nip Tuck’.
Myth #1 We use plastic.

Once I had a young tradesman whose face was smashed up by the windscreen in a truck rollover. Just before he was put to sleep (and this is after I have spent an hour explaining to him how I was going to put his face back together), he asked me, ‘So doc, where do you put the plastic?’

*Insert eyeroll*

I have lost count the number of times I have been asked that question. Plastic surgery doesn’t mean we play with plastic or put plastic in people. In fact, if we were to use any form of prosthetic device, it is usually silicone. The ‘plastic’ in plastic surgery is derived from the Greek word plastikos. It means to change shape, or to mould. The aim of plastic surgery is to change the shape of any part of your body, for cosmetic or functional reasons.

So, sorry folks, we don’t shove blocks of plastic into people.

Myth #2 We can perform surgery without leaving a scar or we can remove scars

Here’s a couple of frustrating conversations I have regularly with patients every week.

Scenario one:

Me: We have to make a cut around the skin cancer on your face to remove it. Once we stitch it up, it will leave a straight line scar.

Patient 1 (outraged) : A scar? But you are a plastic surgeon; I have come to you to have this done so there will be no scars.

Scenario two:

Me: I hope you have recovered from your fall last month. Your cut lip has healed really well since the stitches came out, it looks great.

Patient 2: I hate it. I can’t believe you put a scar on my lip; I want you to remove it.

Ok people, I know plastic surgeons are incredibly good, but we can’t perform miracles. Where there is a cut, there will be a scar. We can’t remove scars either. If you want scarless surgery, you should have had your surgery done when you were a foetus – that is the only way to perform surgery without leaving a scar. And if you want us to stitch up your injuries, it was not me who had created those scars; it was your stupidity in falling into a window whilst you were pissed.

So what makes us better than others in scarring? We stitch differently to other surgeons, we use finer sutures, we know how to hide and minimise scars. We have techniques which can camouflage or improve scars. We have the knowledge and means to treat bad scars.

So, apart from making people look hot, we can make your scar look sensational too. But unlike God, we cannot remove history which has been carved onto your body.

Myth #3 All we do are boob jobs, facelifts and buttock enhancements

‘I don’t understand why I have to come to see a plastic surgeon to have my skin cancer cut out, it’s not like I want a facelift or something,’ said the man sitting in front of me with a fungating growth coming out of his nostril. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to break the bad news to him, that the cancer in his nose was so big that we would have to amputate his nose. Any surgeon would be able to remove his cancer, but he would be left with a hole in the middle of his face. The reason he needed a plastic surgeon was because we can remove the cancer and reconstruct his nose.

The acronym for our specialty is actually PRS – it stands for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. There are two components to our work:

Reconstructive surgery: which is surgery to improve and restore function, to minimize disfigurement and reconstruct structure which was lost due to trauma, disease, cancer or birth defect. Basically, our job is to fill up a hole anywhere on the body. Sometimes we excise tumours ourselves, but often we work in tandem with other oncological surgeons such as orthopaedic surgeons who resect bone and soft tissue tumours, ear nose and throat surgeons who resects tongue, nose, throat cancers, as well as breast surgeons who perform breast cancer surgery. The way I see it is that my oncology colleagues are the ‘destructive’ surgeons and I am the ‘constructive’ surgeon. I remember when I first started training I was hesitant as to how much margin to take around a tumour. My supervising surgeon took me aside and said, ‘Just remember, Tiff, the reason you are going to be a plastic surgeon is because you are not afraid to make a big hole. Unlike other surgeons, you can fix holes.’

Aesthetic or cosmetic surgery: which is surgery to enhance, or to rejuvenate a specific body part, it is designed to improve a person’s appearance by reshaping facial or bodily features. So yes, we get a chance to make people beautiful. We make boobs bigger, smaller, perkier or firmer. We lift up butts, thighs, arms and faces (not specifically in that order). We inject, insert, eliminate and suck to enhance contours. There has not been a single part of the human body that a plastic surgeon has not attempted to alter, although I gladly admit that I have had no training or experience in anal bleaching – nor am I interested in expanding my field into that area.

Myth #4 Our work is frivolous and we perform non-essential surgery.

As my husband (who is a heart and lung surgeon) sums it up succinctly, ‘Honey, I save lives, you just make the world beautiful.’

Even though spoken in jest, unfortunately it is a view held by many, including hospital administrators, insurance companies and sadly, our colleagues in other specialties. I have had medical students who did not attend their plastic surgery sessions with me at the clinic because they feel that it is not something they need to learn about. I was once told by a second year student that plastic surgeons are not real surgeons who practice ‘true medicine’.

People seem to forget that plastic surgery is not just about cosmetic surgery, but that the most important aspect of our role is to improve a person’s self esteem. No matter how much the self-help books may claim about not placing too much importance on one’s appearance, and to stop using your looks to determine your self-worth, the reality of life is simply – people do judge you by the way you look. And that includes yourself.

It is amazing the difference we sometimes see in our patients. Like the 12-year-old boy who was constantly teased at school for his bat ears – he got it fixed before he started high school. He became a completely different person; he happily went to the barber to have him shaggy long hair removed, started going out with his friends and strutted into my office at 8 weeks postop as if he owned the world like a typical 12-year-old boy. My favourite last month was a 30-year-old mother who had a nasty burn scar over her neck and chest from a childhood hot-water scald. The scars stopped her breasts from developing properly and distorted whatever little breast tissue that did develop. After surgery to correct the deformity and implants to provide shape, she swapped her oversized jumpers for tailored dresses, and started becoming more involved in mother’s groups. She wore a pink singlet with a pearl pendant dangling in her new cleavage when she came to her appointment, despite the visible old burn scars which covered her neck.

Surprising it may be, we do perform surgery that saves lives and limbs. We are often called upon to join small blood vessels under the microscope for organ transplantation in children. We reconstruct the neck after throat cancer, so that the patient can still eat, drink and breathe. We put fingers back on after they have been accidentally severed, and we transplant soft tissues into smashed up legs that otherwise would have had to be amputated.

Unfortunately our work often goes unrecognised, as throughout history, we have had to repeatedly fight for our patients’ right to access plastic surgery. When hospitals have budget cuts, our operating lists are often the first to be cut. Breast reconstruction after cancer was the last one they slashed from our hospital, because once the cancer has been removed, it is no longer considered life-saving surgery. Health insurance companies which exclude plastic surgery cover leave their members with a policy which pays for the cancer removed, but not the plastic surgical procedure to reconstruct or repair the hole.

Admittedly I sound like I am trying to justify our existence, but I truly believe that even though we are not saving lives every day, our work makes a siginificant difference in people’s lives.

Myth #5 We date our patients

There seems to be a misconception that we fall in love with our creations. I explored this particular issue with my male colleagues. The answer was a categorical no, although they have had plenty of invitations from patients to cross that line. Not only is it ethically wrong and fraught with medicolegal implications, it is also rather disturbing that someone would fall in love with an image they have created, which may have nothing to do with the actual person underneath.

Myth #6 We make lots of money because we charge ridiculous amount of money

I am not blind to the fact that as a plastic surgeon, I am often the target of many sarcastic jokes about money. This not only comes from patients, the general public, but sometimes our own colleagues in the medical fraternity. When I was sitting my specialist board exam, one of the candidates for general surgery taunted me, ‘I think your essay question would be on whether a Maserati is better than a Lamborghini.’ I was not shy to show him the finger as I sweetly replied, ‘well, I do hope you know the answer to your essay questions, which hole to put your finger up.’

Once I was leaving work, and one of my patients walked past me as I was putting my bag into the boot of the car. He took one look at my ten year old Toyota Corolla and shook his head. ‘Oh, doc, you need to get a new car, people would think you are not very good if they see you driving that car.’ I just shrugged and said, ‘Don’t worry Mr B, I leave my Ferrari in the garage for weekends.’ At his stunned look, I had to tell him I was joking.

It is not uncommon sometimes for our patients to comment on the cost of surgery, especially if it involves cancer surgery. For some reason people seem to think that we should do their surgery out of the goodness of our hearts if they have cancer….. but that’s another story altogether. One of the reasons that plastic surgery costs a lot more money than most other surgery is the rebate from health funds are low (because our procedures are not deemed to be a necessity), but also our practice has a lot of overheads, especially with wound care, garments, implants and dressings. We also employ a greater number of staff than other specialties, because there is a lot more patient contact time pre and post operatively. Plastic surgery patients and procedures are more complex to organise, and often requires various number of phone calls and coordination. Not to mention, our patients are usually high maintenance and requires constant reassurance.

Yes, some of us drive Aston Martins, stay at 6 star hotels, wear Gucci and walk in Louis Vuitton, but we work hard for it, and our responsibilities may not be life and death, but there is still a lot of stress involved in our surgery because we know the end result will have a life-long impact on our patients’ life.

Myth #7 We drive fast cars, hang out with celebrities, party like animals, snort cocaine and have the most glamorous life of any doctors

This is simple. We drive fast cars, because we have very busy lives and have places to get to. That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it. And trust me, my Corolla is pretty fast.

The only celebrities we hang out with are those that come for treatment. As I don’t perform a lot of cosmetic procedure, most of the celebrities I have contact with are those who have injured themselves or need reconstruction for cancers. They don’t usually act anything like celebrities when they are in my office and the last thing they need is for me to ask them for a selfie.

We try to party like animals, but often our job stops us. We are notorious for pulling out of social commitments at the last minute. One of the worst thing about being a reconstructive surgeon, is that our colleagues take all day to remove the cancers, and we have to sit around waiting for them to finish (or we may have to watch them so they don’t destroy our reconstructive options whilst cutting out the cancer). Once they are done, they piss off to enjoy their evening, while we start our work, usually at the unsociable hour of 4-5pm, working well into the night to patch up the ‘mess’ they have left behind.

What glamorous night life?

As for cocaine, yeah, I know colleagues who do it at parties, but honestly, it usually doesn’t take long for the Board to find them. It is rare that a plastic surgeon is stupid enough to risk their career and reputation to develop such an expensive habit.

Myth #8 We all have had some ‘work’ done on us

I would not deny that some plastic surgeons have had work done, but not all. Although I can’t say the same for the wives or staff! Personally, I don’t trust anyone enough to have plastic surgery done on myself and it is a little difficult perform a facelift on yourself when you should really be asleep throughout the procedure. I know colleagues who inject themselves in the mirror, but I have this unusual need to close my eyes when I see needles coming towards my face, so the results would be rather questionable if I went down that path.

Most of my staff have injections, not because I force them, but it is something I offer them if they want it. And who could say no to free Botox? Because I am very conservative in my treatments, my staff are actually free advertisements of my work. When one of my staff admits to having treatment, the patients are reassured that they won’t look like Jocelyn Wildenstein when they leave my practice.

But, truthfully, the greatest benefit in giving my staff Botox is its efficiency in stopping my practice manager frowning at me and my receptionist frowning at my patients.

Myth #9 Our practice staff are picked for their looks

So, supposedly, this means that our staff should be beautiful young girls with faces full of injectables and look-at-me enhanced breasts. I mean, it is free advertising after all, and who would’t want to be surrounded by luscious females?

Truth number 1 – Most surgeon’s practices are run by their wives. So, which wife would be stupid enough to surround her husband with gorgeous young things?

Truth number 2 – Young girls who are obsessed with their looks don’t usually have the right personality nor the prioritisation skills to run a business well.

Truth number 3 – Experience comes with age. So unless you want to be surrounded by rookies who have no idea what they are doing, you would pick more ‘mature’ staff members to make your own life easier.

Truth number 4 – Patients and clients sometimes find perfection intimidating. They are more comfortable talking about their inadequacies to someone who has flaws as they feel that someone would understand what it is like to be ‘ugly’.

Myth #10 We can make Queen Latifah look like Heidi Klum and vice versa

This is the ultimate myth. I always know it is going to be a difficult consultation when a 5’3, 200+lb person walks in and slaps a picture of Gisele Bundchen on my desk.

So here’s my spill:

  1. I cannot make you taller – go see an orthopaedic surgeon or stick to your heels
  2. I cannot make you a natural blonde – you need a hairdresser or a beautician
  3. Neither can I change the colour of your skin – that’s a disease called vitiligo
  4. Lipsouction is not a form of weight loss – get a personal trainer and stop eating junk
  5. A tummy tuck will not give you six-pack if you haven’t got one to start with
  6. I cannot turn back time to make you look 40 years younger, maybe 10, without the pimples
  7. I cannot make your woo-hoo look perfect nor make you a virgin again (yep, this is a genuine request, apparently Dr Google says it is a great anniversary present for your husband, or wedding present if you are marrying a younger man.)
  8. I cannot reverse gravity with a cream, it is called surgery
  9. And of course, I cannot perform scarless surgery
  10. Oh, and I cannot execute plastic surgery which will make your husband stop sleeping with his 20-year-old secretary, unless you want me to ask my Urology colleague to do a quick operation on your husband.

So, we may be Plastic Fantastic, but we are really just like any other regular surgeons. We cannot perform miracles, and we cannot change who you are. You need to speak to either God or a Shrink about that one.

 

 

Not a Saint Hospital

One morning I found a note on my desk from my secretary. It said:

The Medical Director at St X would like an appointment with you to check that everything is going well for you at St X.

It wasn’t unusual to get a ‘summon’ from the Medical Director of these private hospitals. Usually, it is a low-key chat to make sure that the private surgeons working there are not having issues with the operating theatre equipment or staff, and that they have no complaints about ward care of their patients. It was just over 2 years since I have started bringing patients into St X for my surgical lists so I was expecting an invitation from the MD sooner or later.

I asked my secretary to shorten my next St X operating list, and arrange an appointment with the MD afterwards around 5pm for me.

This was the conversation:

MD: Hi Dr T, thanks for taking the time to see us. So, how’s everything going?

Me: Great. I have had no problems, the theatres are great, the nurses on the ward are helpful, my patients have had no complaints. They are liking the private rooms and….

MD: (Nodding vigorously and leaning forward to cut me off). Well, I want to talk to you about Mrs Y.

Me: Oh? Is she causing problems with the staff?

Mrs Y was a patient of mine on the surgical ward whom I had just admitted two weeks ago. She was a teacher in her late 50’s who sustained severe spinal injuries when she was a teenager and is now wheelchair bound. Mrs Y was also a long term insulin dependent diabetic who unfortunately had severe ketoacidosis last year and ended up in ICU, ventilated for 2 months. During her illness, they didn’t look after her pressure areas so she ended up with severe grade IV pressure sores over both the ischium and sacrum by the time she was transferred out of ICU. She was then discharged from hospital with this problem as no one wanted to deal with it whilst she was an inpatient. Mrs Y went back to teaching, and spent hours every day in her chair. When her blood sugars started to deteriorate and her family doctor noticed an unpleasant smell during one of her visits, it led to the discovery of her persistent pressure sores. By the time she came into my office, she was hyperglycaemic, septic with infection as both pressure sores were wide and deep enough for me to put two fists in each. I could see her ischial bone at the base of one, and the rectum at the base of the other, and because she was incontinent from her spinal injury, the wounds were severely contaminated with faeces as she sat in the wheelchair in her soiled diapers. Understandably, both her and her husband were by now, agitated and frustrated with unhelpful medical staff and hospitals.

I admitted her into St X, because it was a large tertiary private hospital with all specialties on hand. She required an urgent endocrinology review, infectious disease input, a general surgical procedure to divert her faecal output via a temporary colostomy, dressings and pressure care. Needless to say, she started to improve within 7 days. She required intensive nursing care with four times a day dressing change (to prevent accumulation of pus that was continually exudating from the wound) and two hourly turns to prevent development of new pressure sores while she was bed bound.

Mrs Y, at the beginning of the week, cranky from feeling ill and hating being bed bound, was not the best compliant patient. She was a teacher after all and did not like being told what to do. She was also a little distrustful of the nursing staff as it was poor nursing care in ICU which resulted in her current problems. However, after seeing herself improve over a week, she became the most pleasant and grateful patient on the ward. She helped the staff by setting an alarm clock and turning herself so that all the nurses had to do was to pop their heads into her room and check that she was in a different position. She also changed her own colostomy bags so that the staff didn’t have to deal with this particularly unpleasant job. The nurses told me that they enjoyed looking after Mrs Y.

I was rather surprised that the MD had brought her up in our meeting.

MD: No no, nothing like that at all. (He cleared his throat awkwardly). Patients like Mrs Y, well, we find it hard to accommodate them in this hospital.

Me: I know, I know, spinal patients should really be in dedicated spinal units, but there are no private spinal facilities for these patients. Mrs Y has been paying her private health insurance for over 30 years, so she didn’t want to go to a public hospital; she wanted to be looked after in a private hospital.

MD: We understand that, but private health funds in general don’t pay us very much for looking after patients like her. She requires intensive nursing care so we actually don’t get any profit for such a heavy nursing load.

Me: (Speechless for a second) So, let me get this right. You don’t want patients like Mrs Y because her admission doesn’t generate enough profit for the hospital?

MD: I just wanted to make you aware of this, so that you will remember in the future not to bring patients like her into our hospital. We would prefer day surgery patients, but if you feel strongly about keeping them overnight, we are more than happy to accommodate that. As for Mrs Y, I believe you are planning to keep her in hospital for a while?

Me: Yes. At least 3 months.

Both Mrs Y and I had a long discussion about this. She had agreed to take a whole semester out of teaching and come into hospital to have her sores treated properly. This meant bed rest with appropriate pressure care, no sitting in her wheelchair and regular dressings. I had explained to her in depth that if we could make her overall health better, these sores may heal without intervention. If not, they may need an operation. However, even with an operation, she will need to be off the surgical wounds for 6 weeks before she could sit on them. She knew she was in for the long haul, because she didn’t just bring her suitcase when she checked into the hospital, she also brought her Nespresso machine. According to Mrs Y, 3 months was a long time to go without good coffee.

I watched the MD’s face cringe.

Me: I can’t rush the healing process, and I have to wait for the infection to settle.

MD: Maybe you can find a little operation for her so that we can get a little more money out of her health fund during her stay?

Me: But she doesn’t need an operation. She just needs dressings.

MD: We are probably going to lose money if she stays that long.

Me: Would you like me to transfer her to the public hospital? (The MD looked up at me with surprise and a glint of hope in his eyes). I could just say to Mrs Y that St X doesn’t want you here because they are unable to make a profit out of your stay. They think you should really be in a public hospital despite the fact you have paid your private health premiums for the last 30 years…..

MD: No, no. (He started to clear his throat again). There is no need for that. I suppose since we are a hospital affiliated with the church, we can show charity by letting her stay her for a while.

Me: Righto. Is that all? (I started to get up to leave).

MD: But, (he stopped me turning towards the door), if you do a few more of your cosmetic cases here at St X’s, it may compensate for her stay.

He stood up and reached out to shake my hand.

Me: Well, I cancelled two breast augmentations this afternoon because of this meeting. I have transferred them to my lists at another hospital tomorrow.

I ignored his hand, turned to open the door, and walked out of his office without a backward glance.

Mrs Y stayed for the full 3 months and went back to teaching full time, sitting in her wheelchair with a beautifully healed bottom.

 

Living in an Epidemic

When I was reading about the Ebola outbreak last night, I thought of my time in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic. So I went back to the diaries I kept during this time and found couple of interesting entries. I was there as a Fellow in one of the world famous plastic surgery units during 2003. A Fellow is a young doctor who travels to another hospital unit to train for a specified period as a ‘trainee’ doctor, usually to learn from a specific doctor or a particular procedure/technique.

I have left this entry unedited, as it is a true perspective of an Australian living in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic, both as a doctor and local resident.

25th Aug 2003

It’s been more than two months already since the first wave hit Taipei. I still remember the panic that hit the city during that first week; it was when they closed down Ho-Ping Hospital in central Taipei, with all its patients and staff isolated within the hospital. It was constantly being aired on the news and the hospital exterior was being videoed 24 hours a day, a bit like reality TV. There were scenes of flying badmington cocks over the railings of the balcony, and I remembered the presenter reporting that it was great to see that the occupants of the hospitals keeping up their spirits, and exercising to keep fit. The comments from my male colleagues in the TV room at the time were less than polite. I think something was mentioned about there are better things to do when you are couped up with a whole bunch of young nurses. *eye roll*

Then there were news of individuals who were to be isolated at their own homes because they’ve been in contact with SARS suffers. After which, news of non-compliant isolated individuals venturing out of their homes were reported with the police were called to herd them back home. They have now posted guards around quarantined buildings to stop residents from ‘escaping’. Cases were on the rise, another hospital got shut down, and the mortality is starting adding up.

I have missed my chance to go home. Four weeks ago our department director gathered all the overseas Fellows in his office to let us know that if we wanted to go home and leave the country, he would still be happy to write us a certificate for our fellowship and recommend us for jobs back home. There were 7 of us, two from Harvard in the US, 2 from Italy, 1 from UK and another from Ukraine. The Ukrainian and I stayed. It was really a blessing in disguise, because now, instead of elbowing other Fellows out of the way for an opportunity to do cases, we are both operating more than 12 hours a day. I joked to my concerned parents back home that I spend so much time in the operating theatre with its filtered and uni-direction airflow, I am probably at the lowest risk of getting any respiratory virus. They weren’t amused. Wherease my boyfriend just said that if I got SARS, he wasn’t coming to visit. I’d like to believe that’s anger and frustration talking. I can understand why he’s so pissed at me. I think I would be too if our positions were reversed.

The one thing I have discovered about living in this SARS epidemic is that there seem to be more pregnant women than usual at the moment. One nurse mentioned to me that since we have to take our temperatures every day as required for all hospital staff, she has finally managed to get pregnant during her last cycle as she knew her exact ovulation date. A fellow colleague also mentioned that you can pick the pregnant nurses during this epidemic, as they are usually the ones wearing an N95-grade mask. These are heavy duck-billed masks which have viral filters and are very hot and uncomfortable. Most staff members such as myself (who want to breathe and admittedly am a bit blasé about the whole thing) just wear the regular light ones.

Oh well. You’ve gotta learn to see the bright side of life when living in an Epidemic.

Administration has been harping on about wearing the right masks, but I seriously believe that if I wash my hands (which are raw from scrubbing all day), and keep away from sniffling, slobbering people, I’ll be fine. I have been avoiding public transport as much as possible. I have blistered on my feet because it takes me one hour each way, walking to and from work. After 8pm, I just sleep in one of the spare beds in the Burns Unit. I suppose I am like every other deluded doctor at the moment, we think we are being ‘adequately’ careful and probably invincible.

A thought just occurred to me. If I die in this epidemic, I won’t be able to hear ‘I told you so.’

Well, I guess if I am not back tomorrow, you know I am being ventilated in ICU with SARS.

 

 

Doctors are the worst patients

chestxrayphotobomb

There are plenty of reasons why doctors shouldn’t get sick. The best one being – we make the worst patients. I, of course, am no exception. Despite having had plenty of practice in the past of being a patient, somehow, I just don’t seem to learn. Every time I get sick, I am always a doctor, trying to be a patient.

So why are we such bad patients? Because we think we know better. We are the one saving lives, and sometimes we refuse to admit that we are the ones that need saving.

6 weeks ago, I caught a viral infection, not hard when you work with sick people all the time. I kept working, because as far as I was concerned, if I wasn’t intubated on a ventilator in intensive care, or in a casket, I was not sick enough to stop working.

Reason #1: We don’t realise how crap we really feel until we stop worrying about how crap everyone else feels. When you are deeply buried amongst blood and gore during an operation, you concentrate on what’s in front of you, rather than the tightness and clogging in your own lungs.

Two weeks later, instead of improving, I developed a hacking cough which sounded like I was trying to expel my lungs in piecemeal. As I was struggling for breath whilst talking to patients in my clinic, one of my colleagues suggested that I go and have a chest x-ray done. I did. I looked at it with my colleagues (bear in mind we are both plastic surgeons who rarely ever have to look at chest x-rays), we decided that my lungs looked normal, that I would live and carry on. However, just to be on the safe side, I texted a photo of my x-ray to my husband, who is a lung surgeon, and looks at chest x-rays every day.

Reason #2: For every doctor who self-diagnoses, there is an idiot patient.

I received a text from the husband. Go and see a real doctor. I shrugged it off, he was obviously happy to look at everyone else’s x-rays, but couldn’t spare two minutes looking at his own wife’s x-ray.

Reason #3: Sympathy is sparse when you are married to a fellow medico (and surrounded by friends who are doctors). You have to be showing signs of multi-organ failure before you get breakfast in bed.

I carried on with my afternoon operating list, during which, couple of times I had to sit down because I felt light headed from being short of breath. I felt tired, and was taking more care than normal, but the list went on smoothly without a hitch.

Reason #4: It takes a sledgehammer to slow  down a surgeon. Because we are so focused on our work, we often don’t realise we are pushing our bodies to the limit until we collapse in a heap.

I got home late that evening, at which point my husband looked at my bluish lips, my ashen complexion and yelled, ‘What the F$#@ are you doing at home? You should be in hospital.’ He pulled up the x-ray photo I texted him and shoved it into my face, ‘you have right upper and middle lobe pneumonia.’

Reason #5: When we self-diagnose, we either completely miss the obvious, or become total hypochondriacs with the worst over-diagnoses. In my case, it was the former. Also, note to self- I obviously am not qualified to read a chest x-ray.

I climbed into bed in my work clothes. I couldn’t think of anything more mortifying than going into hospital for a cold and cough. There was no way I was going into hospital for this. So exhausted was I that I fell asleep within 10 seconds.

Reason #6: We never think we are sick enough to seek medical attention.

The next day, as I was doing an early morning ward round, I ran into a friend/colleague who is a general physician. He took one look at me, frowned at the sound of my wheezing and coughing, and promptly declared that I needed to be admitted to hospital for treatment. I told him that I had a full clinic, and will have to check into hospital later that evening. He suggested that I get myself into hospital as soon as possible; I told him that I couldn’t cancel all my appointments and let my patients down at such short notice.

Reason #7: We think that the Earth would stop spinning without us, and that our patients couldn’t possibly survive without us.

The day was particularly long – like a train in slow motion. Several patients looked at me in concern and told me I didn’t look well. I asked my secretary to shift all my appointments and operating lists for the next few days, so I could be admitted into the hospital. Some patients were angry and upset, some complained that they are busy people and already had arrangements in place for their booked surgery. Apparently my illness was going to interfere with their plans. Some were worried that their treatment were delayed and felt that I was neglecting them.

Reason #8: Some of our patients think they couldn’t possibly survive without us.

So I checked myself into hospital that evening. I was put on oxygen, given nebulisers, antibiotics and tucked into bed to rest. It was only when I was forced to do nothing that I suddenly realised how terrible I felt. My chest felt tight, my ribs ached, and my body gave in to the continuous coughing that rattled my bones. My limbs were like jelly and my muscles barely contracted, behaving like useless slabs of soft meat patties. I couldn’t sleep as the call bells pealed throughout the night, sounds of doors opening and closing interrupted my light slumber, and occasional moans and yells from other patients made me toss and turn. The next morning, the physiotherapist spent half an hour bashing on my chest to clear up the clogging in my lungs. We then decided to venture out of the room for a walk, and that is when I saw one of my own patients walking down the corridor on her zimmer frame with her physiotherapist. I looked down at my pyjamas in shame and high-tailed it back into my room. I started thinking about leaving the hospital.

Reason #9: Even though as doctors, we spend the majority of our lives in a hospital, we actually really hate staying in one.

When my physician came to see me, I spoke to him about the possibility of having my treatment at home. He was able to adjust my antibiotics and decided that I could be discharged as a ‘hospital-in-the-home’ patient, where I will be going home with my IV cannula in place, and just come back to day hospital for my IV antibiotics, physio and nebulisers once a day.

Reason #10: A colleague will always assume that as doctors, we would be trust-worthy, compliant, sensible patients. WRONG.

As soon as I arrived at home, I headed to the study and switched on my laptop. I reviewed all my dictation and letters, chased up lab results of my patients and caught up on some bookkeeping for my practice. The day after I was discharged, I had a case which could not be cancelled, so I asked my anaesthetic colleague to remove my IV cannula so that I could scrub for surgery, then to replace it after surgery before I headed back into hospital for my treatment.

Reason #11: We know how the system works and we have connections. Doctors will always find a way to circumvent treatment regimes to suit their activities.

But as I sat there at the end of the day, with the IV antibiotics dripping into my veins, and the nebuliser oxygen mask on my face, I suddenly felt so tired. So tired of it all, of putting on a brave face, of carrying on as if nothing is wrong when I felt so unwell, of worrying about my patients when I should be concerned for my own health, and most of all, I was just simply tired. My bones ached from exhaustion, and my mind was so worn out, it was completely devoid of any emotions.

Mentally, I was waving a white flag. My body was shutting down because it had reached its limits, and it was time I surrendered to the consequences.

Reason #12: It is terrifying for doctors to admit that we, despite our abilities to help people and save lives, are just like everyone else, mere mortals, in bodies that have limits.

After four frustrating, agonising weeks, I am finally on the slow road to recovery. It is only now that I have started to contemplate changes in my life, ways of improving my health, and strategies of looking after myself. In a moment of déjà vu, I felt that I may have been down this path before. Regardless, I was, at last, being a sensible patient.

That is, until next time.

Stalker #2

stalker 2

It was the summer of 2008. I was driving to work one day, and my mobile phone rang. I answered it on my hands-free, thinking it was because I was running a little late for the ward round, and the nurses were being impatient. However, the sharp retort froze on my tongue when the caller introduced himself.

‘Hi Doc, it’s Bruce, I am the head of security at the hospital.’

Oh crap. They found out it was me who has been parking in the Director of Surgery’s spot on weekend call.

‘Could you give me call on this number when you arrive at the car park?’

Great, now they are going to make sure I don’t use anyone else’s reserved spots.

‘We need to escort you to and from the car park from now on. We have had to take out a restraining order against a patient of yours, and we have been assigned to ensure your safety.’

WTF?!?!

During my final rotation as the senior registrar in plastic surgery, I was often entrusted with difficult cases, or difficult patients. My boss at the time was the HOD (head of department). He was referred a patient from the cardiac surgery unit. It was an elderly 70-yar-old lady who had bypass surgery which unfortunately went pear shaped. She ended up in intensive care for a month with complication after complication. One of the consequences of her general comorbidities was break-down of her lower leg wound from where they harvested her veins for the bypass grafts. There was no sign of healing due to her poor general health.

When I saw her wound, I told the HOD that there was no way a skin graft would take. It was slimy with a biofilm of bacterial colonisation. The bed of the wound was completely white and scarred with no healing granulation tissue. It would be like laying turf on concrete. The HOD told me to take her to theatre and just lay a graft on it. He could tell that I didn’t agree by the silence that ensued.

‘I know the graft won’t take, Tiff, but we need to graft her. Her son is being difficult and demanding.’ At my raised eyebrow, he sighed. ‘I know, I know, it’s the wrong reason to operate, but he is making life hell for the cardiac team.’

I shrugged, documented his decision in the chart, spoke to the patient and booked her for theatre. 10 days after her surgery, the graft became sloughy, and the wound went yellow. Surprise, surprise, I thought, but I spoke to patient, explained why the graft didn’t take and she agreed that it was a long shot, but was very grateful I tried. We both agreed that more dressings were required. I didn’t give it any further thought.

Couple of days after that, I was caught up in an 8-hour case in the operating theatre, during which my pager kept going off. When I un-scrubbed from surgery, I noted that they were outside calls. I rang the switchboard, and they told me that there was a man who was very insistent on talking to me. I asked them if they knew who he was, they said he wouldn’t say. It was well past 7pm, so there was not much I could do, so I put it to the back of my mind and headed home. Then, my mobile phone rang whilst I was driving home that night, I thought about not answering it as I was about to enter the under-river tunnel, where I would lose mobile phone signal. However, the number showed that it was the hospital, so I picked it up.

‘Hi Doctor, I have one of your friends on the line looking for you.’

I rolled my eyes, must be one of my colleagues who wanted me to pick them up for work tomorrow. ‘Sure, put them through.’

‘Hello?’

‘Are you Doctor Tiffany?’

Something in his voice got my attention. It was not a voice I recognised. ‘Yes, it’s me. Who am I speaking to?’

‘You did an operation on my mother couple of weeks ago, and it was a complete failure. Now she has an infection in her leg, what did you do to her?’ He was yelling down the phone.

Initially, I was too shocked to reply. I remember vividly listening to the agitated heavy breathing that reverberated over the phone during the silence.

‘I am sorry, I am not sure who you are referring to, could you tell me who you are and your mother’s name please?’

Unfortunately that just earned me another blasting. ‘How can you not remember who you’ve operated on? What kind of doctor are you? My mother is…… you….. not good…… bad….find you…..’

There was no point. I was now in the tunnel and the signal was cutting in and out, which eventually cut off completely. I sighed. That was probably going to make matters worse now because he would probably think I had hung up on him.

When I exited the tunnel, I rang the hospital and spoke to the switchboard lady that connected me before. I asked her who he was, and whether there was any way I could get in contact with him, the switchboard lady sounded surprised and said, ‘but doctor, he said he was one of your really good friends and wanted to be put through to your mobile immediately because he was running late for a dinner you were both going to.’ I had to tell her that it wasn’t a friend but a patient’s relative. She apologised profusely. I had to point out to her the fact that if he really was my friend whom I was meeting for dinner, he would have had my number without having to go through her.

There was nothing I could do, and he never rung back.

It was two days after that, when I got the phone call from security. So I dutifully called them when I arrived at the car park. Within seconds, as if they were already waiting for me there, two men in uniform materialised around my car and walked me to ward. They reminded me to call security when I leave for the day.

When I arrived on the ward, sudden silence ensued. My residents looked at me with fear, and the nurses were whispering. I was just about to ask them what was going on when the HOD came out of his office. A look of relief passed his face when he saw me.

‘Tiff,’ he smile. Now, that was something rare, my HOD did not have ‘smiling’ as one of his usual repertoire of facial expressions. The look on my face must have been one of complete confusion, because he took my arm and literally dragged me along with him. At 5’3 to his 6’2, I had to run to keep up with him. ‘We are going down to see the Head of Security.’

So, at 7.30am, I found myself sitting in a small room in the hospital basement, opposite a large bald man in security uniform. He was leaning on his desk which appeared tiny under his bulging biceps. Loose paper littered the surface of the desk, some of which overspilled onto the floor around his chair.

Bruce the Biceps nodded at my HOD as if to ask him to start. I turned and looked at him. He cleared his throat and uncrossed his legs. ‘You remember Mrs Y?’ I nodded, he was referring to the lady from Cardiac Surgery whom I grafted nearly two weeks ago. ‘You remember how I told you his son was being difficult?’ I frowned, because I only very vaguely remembered anything other than clinical stuff from our conversation. ‘Well, apparently, he was told by his mother that the graft didn’t take, and then the nursing staff got her mixed up with another patient, and told him that the leg was badly infected.’ He paused. ‘Apparently he created a scene on the ward couple of days ago, and demanded to see the surgeon. The nurses told him that it was not possible as the surgeon was operating. During lunch break, he snuck behind the nursing station and was caught reading her chart by one of the nursing staff. He got your name from the operating notes. ‘

Mr Biceps nodded ‘he then pestered the switchboard all day to be put through to you, but they said that they could only page you. None of those pages were answered.’

I sat up, ‘But I was….’

‘Operating, I know.’ Mr Biceps reached over the table and patted my shoulder, ‘Switchboard also told me that he managed to get through to you on mobile phone late that night?’

I nodded and told him my story. He grimaced. ‘I really should re-do that protocol on phone safety.’

‘Anyway,’ my HOD said, obviously uncomfortable with the whole situation, ‘Apparently yesterday, he turned up on the ward again, demanding to see you. The nurses told him that you weren’t in the hospital for the day, he left the ward.’ He threw his hands in the air in frustration, as we both knew I was at work yesterday, ‘I don’t know, maybe they were trying to get rid of him. He then rung switchboard and asked which hospital you were working at. Switchboard was reading off the old roster and told him that you were at St M’s.’

‘But that was my last rotation,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Mr Biceps nodded, ‘but he was just following the information he was given, so he drove over to St M’s, went to their front desk and demanded to know where you were. Their receptionist told him that you didn’t work there anymore and has been transferred here.’

‘Geez,’ I rolled my eyes, ‘the guy must have thought he was given the run around. The phone calls, then the hospitals…..’ I grimaced, ‘if he wasn’t pissed off before all this, he would have been livid by now.’

‘Uh, huh.’ Mr Biceps agreed, ‘and that’s when he lost his sh…. marbles. He accused everyone of trying to protect you, and that you were hiding from him because you were guilty of trying to kill his mother. He then threatened to shoot you.’

That got my attention. ‘He what?!?’

‘That’s when the front desk at St M’s called security,’ he heaved a sigh, ‘They should have held him, instead, the num nuts over at St M’s told him to leave and not come back. They didn’t even get his name. Then they called me.’ Mr Biceps shook his head. ‘It took me a whole day to work out who he was; I had to make phone calls to the ward, to switchboard and to your boss here.’

He looked at me sternly, ‘I don’t take death threats to our staff here lightly, so I called the police.’

‘So they have arrested him?’

‘Hush,’ my HOD patted my arm, ‘listen to him, there’s more.’

‘The police looked him up on their system, and realised that he had a gun licence.’ He and I both knew that gun licenses were hard to get in Australia, but it didn’t necessarily mean the person owned any firearms. He took a deep breath, ‘and he had half a dozen firearms registered under his licence.’

  1. Now not only did I have a loony after me, but a loony with guns.

‘But the law states that if anyone with a licence or firearms threatens anyone with witnesses, they can confiscate his licence and firearms,’ I said. My boss looked at me in surprise, he didn’t realise I taught Gun Safety courses.

He nodded. ‘Yes, so the police went to his house, cancelled his gun licence and confiscated his firearms,’ he paused, ‘but they also found a few extra unregistered firearms in the same cabinet.’ He then looked at me with a concerned expression, ‘Because they didn’t have a search warrant, they couldn’t look for any others.’

‘Wow, this is getting better and better,’ I said. My boss winced at my sacarsm.

‘They arrested him, but couldn’t hold him. They could only slap him with a fine for the unregistered firearms.’ Mr Biceps scratched his bald head in frustration. ‘So I asked them what they were going to do about your safety, since he may have other firearms which we don’t know about. They have applied for a search warrant and we have applied for a restraining order against him. I was told both of these should come through today.’

‘So,’ my HOD said, ‘he will not be allowed within 200m of the hospital. I don’t want you to go anywhere near that ward she’s on, I will assign another registrar to look after those patients.’

‘And you must be accompanied to and from the car park every day,’ Mr Biceps added. ‘We can’t afford to have any safety issues here at the hospital.’

‘That’s all great,’ I said, ‘but what happens when I am not at work?’

They looked at each other blankly.

My HOD recovered first, ‘he won’t be allowed within 200m of you either.’

Which was all sweet, but I wondered how either of us would know if we were within 200m of each other, since we had never met, and had no idea what the other looked like.

Lucky for me I never found out, because four days later, he was caught sneaking into the ward to see his mother and punched a staff member when he was being forcibly removed. They found a shotgun in his utility truck parked in the hospital car-park. He was arrested and kept in custody without bail. His mother was then discharged from hospital a week after that.

And I thought the highest rate of homicides for plastic surgeons are male patients unhappy with their nose-jobs. Funny how they have stats on that.

 

To Read about Stalker #1, click here.

Stalker #1

stalker 5

When I was a young resident working in the Emergency Department, a young Japanese sushi chef was brought in by his friend because he had sliced his fingertip off. Ok, everyone please refrain from making jokes about fingertip sashimi….. ‘Hmm hmm, but I would imagine it would be quite tough, especially with the nail’. Stop. It. Right. There.

I digress. I was assigned by my senior registrar to ‘patch’ him up, during which, I tried to make polite conversation to take his mind off the pain I was inflicting. He told me about himself and how he had only arrived in Australia 12 months ago. He told me about his restaurant, which I realised was the new one that I drove past everyday on the way to work. He asked me whether I cooked or if I preferred to have someone cooking for me. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Mr Sushi Chef was trying to chat me up. He asked me if I liked Japanese food, and I said I did. His friend (or ‘wingman’) beside him then said that my patient was ‘a very good sushi chef’. I nearly rolled my eyes, and refrained from commenting the obvious: he was so good at it that he sliced his fingertip off. I caught evil smirks on my nurse’s face as she turned away to get some equipment, which left me no doubt of the fact that this story would be doing the rounds as soon as we have finished in the procedure room.

After I have dressed his finger, given him instructions and antibiotics, I said my goodbyes (whilst trying to push him out the door) amidst his effusive gratitude. He then invited me to his restaurant for free sushi. I politely declined, but he insisted, so I just made some very non-committal noises to get him off my back. Mistake Number One.

The whole incident was forgotten a few days later, after everyone have had their turn at making a joke on my behalf about being hit on by a Sushi Chef who sliced his fingertip off with bits of raw fish. Yes, yes, I have heard it all, in all variations.

Until a week later, when a platter of sushi was delivered to our emergency department with a thank-you card, one that not only had my name on it, but the name and address of his restaurant, with his personal mobile number. Despite another round of jokes at the expense of Mr Sushi Chef’s sharp knife skills, (‘hey, Tiff, is that some finger pulp I see in your sushi.’), the platter was devoured within 20 minutes by everyone in the department. I had to admit that the sushi wasn’t bad at all.

When I left my shift that day at 10pm, I headed out the staff exit next to the ambulance bay. As I closed the door behind me, I saw a shadow from the corner of my eye.

‘Dr Tiffany, I have been waiting for you.’

I spun around and nearly got the fright of my life. It was Mr Sushi Chef. I frowned at him; the exit was a restricted staff area. Unease flooded me. I took out my badge, in case I needed to make a quick entry back into the department. He asked me if I enjoyed the Sushi he sent in the afternoon and that whether I had his number. I politely thanked him for the platter and told him that it was unnecessary. I decided against telling him that I wasn’t interested considering I was alone in a dark alley with him. I wasn’t too sure what he would do if I turned him down. I tried to make polite conversation with him, during which I found out that one of the receptionists had given him my finish time and my usual routine. He asked me if I wanted to go out for a drink, but I told him that I was tired and had to do an early shift the next day. He asked me to come into his restaurant tomorrow after my shift, and refused to leave until I agreed. So I did, and breathed a sigh of relief when he left. I quickly headed towards my car in the public car park and drove home. Mistake Number Two.

The next day at work, I rang the restaurant and breathed a sigh of relief when one of the waitresses picked up. I left a quick message to say I would be caught up at work and cancelled the dinner. I then went to see my supervisor and told him about the incident. It wasn’t my intention to get the receptionist into trouble, but I was concerned that next time, it wouldn’t be something as harmless as a persistent admirer.

Or so I thought. Flowers started to arrive. By now, the department was in an uproar of jokes. It did not matter that I was known to be in a long term relationship with a fellow colleague already (my current husband), everyone thought it was very sweet. By the end of the week, I had to write a note to him, thanking him for his gestures, explaining that it was unethical for me date a patient (I didn’t point out the fact that it was ok if the doctor-patient relationship was already finished), and that I was already in a relationship. I told him that he was very sweet, and some girl would be very lucky one day. Blah, blah, blah. I tried to make it as gentle as possible (if any rejection letter can be considered as such), and then I sent it to his restaurant. Mistake Number Three.

The flowers stopped.

One early evening, two weeks later, I found him waiting for me by my car in the car park. The first thought that hit me was how long he must have spent walking around the eight –storey car park to find my car. Secondly, how the hell did he know which car was mine?! In between those inane thoughts, I considered turning around and running back to the hospital, but at the same time, I realised he had already seen me. He was much taller than me, and It would have been no contest for him to outrun me in my kitten heels (I was on my way to meeting some friends for dinner). I slowly approached my car, but stood a few metres away from him.

He told me that he just wanted to speak to me, because I had broken his heart. I said that I was already in a relationship. He then said that I couldn’t possibly be happy in my relationship, otherwise I would have turned him down the first time and that he wanted me to be the lucky girl I mentioned in my ‘love letter’. He said that he waited for weeks by his phone for me to call after he had received the letter. The letter was a sign that we were star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet. He was approaching me slowly as he spoke. It was at this point, I realised that I was dealing with a slightly deranged individual.

I had slowly manoeuvred myself to the car door, so I told him that I really wasn’t interested. He stayed still, but smiled at me knowingly as he watched me getting in the car. He said loudly just before I closed the car door that he already knew where I lived because he followed me home that first night. I told him that his persistence will not change my mind and he could follow me all he liked, because I was heading out for dinner with friends. When I arrived at the local pub, I was shaking so hard, I had to sit in the car for 20 minutes before I could join my friends.

The next day, some dead roses arrived for me, and a card declaring that I broke his heart again last night. This time, there were no jokes being bantered around. I had another meeting with my supervisor. I was to car-pool with a male colleague to and from work. There was no shortage of volunteers, as everyone knew my partner was seconded to the Emergency Department at Port Hedland Hospital over 1600 km away and I was living alone for 3 months. Many nurses offered for me to stay with them for a few weeks. Our emergency department trained the medics for SAS (Australian Special forces), so often, one of them would either offer me a lift home or to walk me and a colleague to the car.

One night, one of the SAS medics, Theo, drove me home. He had been assigned to me for 8 weeks and I had just spent the week making him efficient in stitching up wounds and putting in IV lines.  In return, he had driven me home for the last three evenings in a row. He lived at the barracks one suburb away from mine. When we arrived at my place, he pointed out that there was a brown Holden Gemini across the road which had been there the night before. I knew it wasn’t any of the neighbour’s and told him so. To my surprise, he got out of the car and walked to the brown Gemini. I called him back, but he just waved me off and told me to stay put. Yep, ‘stay put’ like I was one of his little soldiers.

He tapped on the window. While I watched him, bending over and speaking to someone through the window, all sorts of horrible images went through my mind. I could hardly hear anything as neither voice was raised. I clutched my phone and thought, what if he got stabbed, or worse, shot? I started to get out of the car, hoping to physically pull that 220-pound pure muscle mass away from danger. However, as I shut the car door, I saw that he had already turned away the Gemini and was walking back towards me.

‘Was it him?’ I asked. Theo nodded and signalled for me to stay quiet. He took the house keys from my restless hands and pushed me towards my unit. I imagined Mr Sushi Chef’s beady eyes looking at us, and almost felt my back glow with heat.

Theo shepherded me into the house, and quickly went around the lounge to switch all the lights on. He then opened the blinds at the front window and stood in full view of the street. I imagined he would have made an impressive shadow in my window frame. Whilst looking out at the car across the road, he took out his mobile phone, dialled a number and put it to his ear. A second later, I heard the brown Gemini splutter as its engine ignited. It headed off with a squeal down the road.

When the car disappeared from sight, he put his phone back into his pocket and lowered the blinds. ‘He won’t bother you anymore,’ he said, ‘but you can come over and have dinner with us. Stay the night if you are worried.’ At the word dinner, his eyes took on a glassy appearance, ‘I think Mandy is making curry tonight.’ Thoughtful silence followed. ‘The baby will probably keep you awake all night though.’ He winced at his own words.

I politely turned down his offer. Despite knowing his wife was an excellent cook (as evidenced by the incredible lunch boxes he brought to work everyday), crying babies was definitely not an additional enticement to his offer.

‘What did you say to him?’ I asked curiously.

He shrugged. ‘I told him I was a security guard and that if I saw either him or his car anywhere near you again, I will call the cops. I told him I knew his number plate, his phone number and his restaurant, which I will give to the cops. After which, he might get fined, or go to jail and he would lose his restaurant.’ He helped himself to a glass of water from the tap and sat down on my lounge.

I followed suit, glad he wasn’t leaving yet, and laughed at him, ‘That’s not true and you know it. The cops would have just ignored us.’

‘He doesn’t know that, he has only been in Australia for 12 months,‘ Theo winked. ‘Anyway, all the chefs are the same,’ he would know because his brother-in-law was a chef. ‘The restaurant means more to them than anything else in the world, they wouldn’t do anything to put it in jeopardy. And my guess is that he’s not even a permanent resident, so he can’t afford to get in trouble with the police.’

Theo was right. Despite the fact that we car-pooled together for another month, Mr Sushi Chef was never to be seen or heard from again.

 

Invisible People

BellboyMaid

When we were in medical school, we both had several jobs. At the time, M (my then boyfriend and now husband), was an overseas student, so we were paying over $30,000 in university fees. Because our relationship was not ‘sanctioned’ by either of our parents, we had no financial assistance. We slept in a $60-per-week hospital dormitory room (consisting of one bed the size of a two-seater sofa, a small cupboard, an inbuilt desk, and nothing else). There was a strict rule of one person per room, so I had to sneak into the dormitories via the service lift while the wardens weren’t watching. We lived on left-overs from restaurants and hotels we worked at. Our lounge-room was the medical library on campus, and our kitchen was the doctor’s tea room in the hospital.

M was a dish pig. The lowest in the kitchen hierarchy of a restaurant. Not just any restaurant either, it was a swanky seafood restaurant. So, apart from washing tons of dishes, pots and pans, he had to peel over 500 prawns a day, wrestle with crayfish that had woken up from their freezer-induced coma, grapple with live giant mud-crabs’ claws, and de-beard over 50kg of mussels each shift. For a boy from a land-locked central eastern European country, these were creatures he had never seen before. I remembered the first time he tried to tell me what he did at work, he said, ‘I had to peel a lot of sea-cockroaches.’ It was rather adorable in that sexy Eastern European accent….

At the end of each shift, he had to clean the kitchen, which included an hour of hosing and scrubbing down the mats in the kitchen that often had bits of seafood stuck in the its rubber grid. I still remember the stench whenever he came home from work – I knew he was in the corridor even before he knocked on the door. He would walk through the room, straight onto the outside balcony, and take off his clothes (luckily it was often past midnight by the time he arrived home, not that he had a bad physique to show off in public!). His jeans were so stiff with a mix of dirt, cleaning agent, water and salt, that the pants remained standing on its own even after he stepped out of it. He then headed straight down the corridor in his briefs to the communal bathroom. Only then, did I get my hello, kiss and hug.

I was always surprised that he took on and stayed in that job for the 4 years of medical school. M was born into a very well-off, prestigious family in his town. His mother was the superintendent of the local hospital and his father was a civil engineer, a partner of a construction company that built several towns in Russia, one of which was named after him. M grew up in privilege, and has never had to work or ask for money from his parents. He just needed to request what he wanted, and he got. After he finished school, he became the captain of their national ice-hockey team, he was quite the local celebrity with all the perks that accompanied. And yet, there he was, scrubbing the kitchen sink and grills at midnight, for $9.50 an hour. Not once during those years did I hear him whinge. To him, it was simply the means to an end.

I had several jobs myself, some were rather glamorous, some not so. My higher end jobs included modelling for cosmetic companies, teaching piano privately, and playing background live music at hotel bars, restaurants and lobbies. I also had more income-reliable menial jobs like waitressing, cleaning, hotel maid, pet-sitting, typing and shelving/photocopying medical journals in the library (yes, this was in the pre-technology days).

One thing we both learnt from those days, was that some people are invisible.

When I was a cleaner, hotel maid or even as a waitress, and while he was a dish pig, we were invisible. At work, people did not see us, or acknowledge our presence. Even though being invisible was advantageous in being able to watch and observe others freely, not to mention the lack of ‘noticeable’ responsibilities, but I, personally hated being invisible as if I didn’t exist. I often lamented about this, but M pointed out to me that we were supposed to be unseen, because those ‘higher-up’ didn’t need to be bothered with what we did, how we did it or what we thought.

Now that I work as a surgeon in hospitals, I have noticed that the catering staff, the cleaners and the orderlies are often also invisible to other staff members, or sometimes, even to the patients. This often makes me mad.  I consciously make an effort at every opportunity I have to learn everyone’s names, and to stop and talk to them. I acknowledge their presence when they are in the room, and I try my best to include them as part of my team. After all, as far as I am concerned, we are all there for the benefit of the patient. What I find even more infuriating is the fact that some people treat others depending on what they do as a job. I have very little time or patience with patients or colleagues who sweet-talk me because I am surgeon, and yet, behind my back, they are rude and insulting to other staff members.

A colleague of mine once pursued me relentlessly to join his practice. I asked him why he wanted me to share his business so much. He said that it was because I treated everyone equally, that my demeanor and attitude to the cleaner was the same as that to the professor of surgery. It was a good thing for business he said, because I would be courteous to the staff, and respected by patients. Then he said, that I must have had a good upbringing.

Looking back, he hit the nail right on the head.

When we were little, we had a maid and a driver. The maid was an elderly woman, who was a generation older than my mother. We were to call her ‘ma’am’ because we had to respect our elders, and we were not allowed to give her cheek. Ma’am had a shoulder problem, and I remembered that mum used to empty the top cupboards for her to clean, and bought her light ladder so that she didn’t have to reach up too much. Once Ma’am dropped a plastic jar full of biscuits, it cracked on impact and the biscuits spilled all over the floor. She was about to bend down to the floor to pick up the crumbs when mum stopped her. ‘Oh no, Ma’am, you have only just recovered from your back surgery, don’t get down on the floor.’ She turned to us children and said, ‘kids, show your respect, there’s no need for someone older than you to squat down to the floor when you can do it for them.’ My brothers and I dutifully dropped to the floor and started sweeping and picking up biscuit crumbs.

Once when we were home early from school, Ma’am was on her hands and knees polishing the wooden floor, my bothers and I were aghast at this sight. We picked up our own polishing clothes and started to do our own rooms, because we couldn’t possibly have her clean up after us, on her hands and knees! Couple of weeks later, as we were in the supermarket with mum, we tried to sneak a polishing mop into her shopping trolley. Considering the fact that the mop and its handle was twice our size, it was hard to hide it from mum. She asked why we wanted to buy one, so we told her that we were going to give it to Ma’am so that she didn’t have to get down on the floor anymore. Mum didn’t say anything, but I was sure I caught a smile when she turned to pay for it at the cashier. We were so excited when we got home, my older brother raced up the stair with the mop to the bathroom where we could hear Ma’am tinkering away. When we told her that we bought a mop for her, she gathered us in a hug so tight and long that we started to whimper. When she released us, tears were running down her face, so hard and fast that we were all alarmed. My brothers and I started crying because we thought she was upset with us. It took a lot of hot chocolate and cake before my mother could pacify both Ma’am and us children from turning into a big slobbering mess.

Mr Lee was our driver. He was a gentleman who, despite being the same age as our parents, looked twice as old. He was often seen, leaning against the car, dragging anxiously on a cigarette, waiting but would quickly put out his smoke as soon as we approach. Mum used to lecture him from the backseat about looking after his health, to stop smoking and spending his money on gambling. He used to drive us to and from school, piano lessons, dance classes, to visit grandparents and looked after Dad on his business trips. One night, I was woken up by noises from the lounge, so I climbed out of my bed, headed down the corridor and quietly looked through the glass sliding doors. Mr Lee was sitting with his head in his hands, slouched on the edge of the sofa. Both mum and dad were sitting on each side of him and talking quietly to him. Dad had a thick wad of cash in his hand, and he gently pried Mr Lee’s hand from his face, and placed it in his hand. Mr Lee tried to give the money back, but Dad refused. I couldn’t hear what mum was saying, but the words ‘your wife and children’, ‘gambling’, ‘debt’, ‘must stop’, filtered through the frosted glass door. Mr Lee put the money into his jacket, collapsed onto the floor on his knees in front of mum and dad, and started bowing to them. Mum and Dad got up quickly, and tried to help him up from the floor.

When I was 9, Mr Lee picked me up from school to take me to my ballet lesson. I had a fight with my best friend – and for a 9-year-old, it was considered a very bad day at school. When we arrived at the dance school, I refused to get out the car. There was no amount bribery or cajoling from Mr Lee that could make me leave the car. I was behaving like a spoilt little rich princess. Mr Lee gave up after twenty minutes, and drove me to the nearest park, where we went for a little walk and he bought us some ice cream. He took me to the playground, and pushed my swing for me. When we went home an hour later, my mother was anxiously waiting at the front door.  Apparently she received a phone call an hour ago from my dance teacher to say I didn’t turn up to class. She was furious and demanded to know where we had been. I was terrified because I knew I was in big trouble. Mr Lee bundled me out the car and ushered me toward the door. He apologised profusely to mum, he told her that he was late picking me up from school, and by the time we got to the dance lesson, it was so late, he didn’t think there was any point dropping me off. He said that I was very upset that I had to miss my class, so to make up for his sloppiness, he took me for ice-cream. Mum berated Mr Lee angrily and told him that next time he should just bring me straight home. He apologised again and asked for Mum’s forgiveness. Mum was so mad, she threatened to fire him as she turned away, marching towards our front door. I was alarmed and cried out, trying to catch mum’s attention. Mr Lee turned to me and put his finger to his lips. ‘Go on, little girl, go inside with your mama.’  I did what I was told but when I looked back at him with my sad face, he winked at me with a great big smile, displaying all his crooked yellow tobacco-stained teeth, and gave me a thumbs-up sign like he didn’t have a care in the world. I was so relieved to see him waiting to take me to school outside our front door the next morning that I ran to give him a hug before he could put out his cigarette.

Recently, I realised, that despite the fact we live very comfortably after scraping and saving through medical school, we haven’t changed. Neither has my parents. We stayed at the very swish Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year earlier this year. We had my parents along for the trip. It was stinky humidly hot when we landed, but luckily we were transported in fully air-conditioned private car. When we arrived in the driveway of the hotel, Dad was concerned for the bell boys in their full uniform carting luggage in the heat. My 68-year-old Dad insisted on taking his own luggage out of the boot. It was only when I told him that he will get the bell boys and drivers in trouble with management by doing their job, that he backed down. Dad was so distressed that he didn’t have any Hong Kong dollars on him for a tip, I had to ask the bell boys if they accepted Australian dollars. Mum then wanted to buy bottled drinks for the bell boys standing outside so they didn’t get dehydrated. She gave me money to pop down to the local seven-eleven to get some soft drinks. My husband jokingly said that we should just give the bell boys the money so that they can go and get themselves something to drink. He got a jab in the chest from me and a command from Mum to go and get some drinks from the supermarket. It was a hilarious sight to see my 5-foot-grey-haired mum, handing out bottles of Coke to the bell boys. A couple of days later, Dad was at the morning fruit market buying lots of mangos. I asked him why he needed to buy so many, since we couldn’t take it back with us, he told me to mind my own business. That afternoon, when I was coming back to the hotel from a shopping trip, there was Dad, at the front door of the hotel, handing out his mangos from a plastic bag and telling each one of the bell boys how they must refrigerate it first, so that it would be more delicious and sweet. He repeated the whole exercise at the concierge desk.

My husband and I are not much better ourselves. When we arrived in St Moritz for our ski-trip last year, we had a butler with our suite at the hotel. We didn’t know what to do with him. He offered to unpack for us, but the thought of him handling my underwear made me hurriedly decline his services. He then kept hovering around the room which made us feel very self-conscious. I realised that it was because he wasn’t invisible to us. We had to send him away, even if it was just so that we could take the itchy woolly winter layers off and walk around in our underwear. Our butler got the hint for the rest of our stay and really became invisible. He made sure that all our laundry and ironing were picked up and put away while we were out, and our pyjamas, and delicious nightcap-treats were laid out while we were at dinner. The fire was always on in case we came back early from skiing. At one stage, we caught the front door bell boy whispering into his walkie-talkie as we strode through the front door – no doubt to give our butler warning. The one time we actually saw him was when we locked ourselves out of the room. He appeared out of thin air and apologised profusely for the 50-second-wait we had to endure.

Although we have become very accustomed to having just about everything done for us, not just in our travels but in our everyday life, I am so glad these people have not become invisible to us. I hope that our natural curiosity about people and respect for their lives will keep it this way, because after all, they are here to make our lives easier and they are simply fellow human beings, just like everyone of us.

So Thank you, Mum and Dad, for showing me that no one is invisible.

 

 

Pranks in a Hospital

Pranks at work take on a whole different level when one works in the health industry. I think I could have made some substantial claims from worker’s compensation as a result of the permanent psychological consequences of all the pranks that I have had to endure during my epic climb from a medical student to a specialist. Some were particularly memorable….

When I was a final year medical student, I was known as the ‘yes’ girl. I was one of those bushy-tailed, bright-eyed eager beaver who would do anything that I was asked to do by the medical team I was attached to. One evening, the senior resident on the team told me to go and check on a patient in Room 14 as the patient has had fainting episodes during the day. I was so chuffed thinking that my team trusted my judgement enough to give me such a responsible task, that I almost skipped down the corridor. I knocked on the door of Room 14, and there was no answer. I pushed the door open quietly and peeked. The room was dark and the patient was asleep. I headed back to the main desk and told the resident that the patient was asleep. He frowned at me and asked if I actually touched or saw the patient, I said no. He then asked me how I could tell the patient was actually alive under the blanket. ‘Go and wake her up so you can examine her.’

I felt so stupid that I hung my head in shame as I walked back down the corridor. I pushed the door open and approached the bed. I didn’t want to wake the patient up rudely by turning on the light, so I gently reached for her shoulder to shake her awake. Her pyjamas felt cool as I touched it and there was no response. So I grabbed the blanket and folded it back to wake her up properly. The minute the blankets were drawn back, the whole person flew/bunced/jumped out of bed and smacked me in the head. Apparently my scream was so loud on the ward, the nurses raced down the corridor with the resuscitation trolley. Not to mention some of the patient also wandered out of their room and followed in curiosity.

When the lights of Room 14 was switched on, there I was, on the ground, frantically batting away at the blow-up doll on top of me. My senior resident was laughing uncontrollably in the corner, and the head nurse stood over the side of the bed, shaking her head. Sniggers and giggles broke out in the crowd that gatherd in the doorway by the time I realised that I was not being attacked by a patient. All I could do, was to put the doll aside, give my senior resident a deathly stare and walk out of the room with whatever dignity I could gather. It was the first and final time I cried from a prank, because after that experience, I learnt that non-malicious pranks were actually a form of endearment bestowed upon favourite junior staff members by some of the senior staff.

However, that particular senior resident was apparently also very popular, because he was found ‘accidentally’ locked in the laundry cabinet three weeks later; it took 2 hours for hospital security to come and break the lock because someone had ‘lost’ the key.

My first job as an intern was on the gastroenterology and renal medicine ward, as part of the kidney/liver transplant team. On my first day, I was super excited because there was a kidney transplant to be done, and I was asked by the professor to help out in the operating theatre as they were short of surgeons.  The morning started with an introduction to all the nursing and allied health staff on the ward, then a ward round was done with the professor so I could get to know the patients. He and the other doctors headed down to start their big case, and I was told to follow once I have finished the paperwork from the round. The head nurse made me a coffee as I sat in the office, and told me that it was a welcome gesture from her and the other nurses. I thought that it was an awesome start to my career – everyone on the ward was friendly, and I was going to assist in a kidney transplant on my first day!

I was wrong. It was the most miserable day of my life. Little did I know that the ‘welcome’ gesture contained more than just Nescafe granules. The nurses added some PicoPrep (the stuff patients have to drink before their colonoscopy so that their bowels can be cleared out). Needless to say, during the kidney transplant two hours later, I had to excuse myself and unscrub 5 time within two hours. I tried so hard to hold it in that I had to change my pants three times because I didn’t make it to the bathoom.

By the end of the day, I was dehydrated, shaking with cold sweats running down my face while painstakingly suturing my first surgical wound. Commando.

Yep, no underwear, just in my scrub gear.

diarrhoea

My second job as an intern was in the Emergency Department. This particular ED I worked in was attached to the State Mortuary. So, one of our jobs a ED doctors, was to check, examine and certify the bodies brought in by the police so that appropriate paperworks can be completed to issue a death certificate before the they take it down to the morgue.  Majority of the time, all that was required was a brief look at the history handed to us by the police, a quick zip open of the bag in the boot of the police van, check of the carotid pulse over pasty-white neck skin and couple of signatures on a clipboard.

One day, there was a lull in the usual steady stream of patients.  Two police officers walked in. The senior doctor waved at them and offered to do the certification. The officers grinned and stopped him from heading out the door. ‘Is it a freshie?’ The doctor asked. They shared a smile. The senior doctor turned to the doctor’s area, ‘Who’s the most junior here?’ I put my hand up. He motioned me over. ‘Can you do me a big favour?’ He lowered his voice to a serious tone, It’s very important.’ I nodded eagerly. He pointed to the officers standing at the door. ‘Follow these two officers, there’s a body in their van that need a certificate.’

I puffed up with self-importance and swaggered outside with the two officers behind me. I should have known even before they opened up the door, but I thought the smell was just the usual bad sewage issues we have always had in the driveway drains. I was even more of an idiot not to stop when a swarm of flies escaped as soon as the van doors were open. Instead of doing what any sensible doctor would do – which is just to open a little bit of the bag, see some evidence of rotting flesh and close the zip quickly – I unzipped the whole bag, and tried to put my hand on the maggot infested neck to check for a pulse. It totally escaped my mind that since the guts were all hanging out in pieces, (obviously exploded from the build up of gas – courtesy of a week’s worth of fermentation), and the eyes were large nests of crawling maggots, not the mention the stench that permeated my whole being which made me want to run as far as I could in the opposite direction, were evidence that the patient is definitely DEAD. Yet I needed to feel his pulse to confirm that he was dead?! The officers were covering their noses with their hands and rolling their eyes at me. Really?? They seemed to say to me, Did you really have to open the whole bag and stick your finger into his neck?  Who found this silly little intern? She ain’t no Sherlock Holmes when it came to dead bodies.

When I grew up to become a surgical trainee, the antics continued in the operating theatres. I never realised how vulnerable a surgeon was when they were scrubbed, until the pranks started. Because the wound and equipment has to be kept sterile, once we are scrubbed, we cannot touch anything that is not sterile. For example, if someone punched me in the face when I  am scrubbed, it’s not like I can just punch them back, since they are not sterile. If I did, I would contaminate my surgical field and will have to take everything off and scrub all over again.

One of the worse things about being scrubbed is not being able to answer the phone. It is very often that our mobile phones go unanswered during surgery. Once in a while, if the nurse or anaesthetist is free and feel kind (as they hate being lowered to the status of the phone-answerer), they will take a message for the surgeon.

Once my senior surgeon was sitting in the operating theatre watching me operate when my phone went off next to him on the bench. He glanced down and said, ‘it’s your husband.’ I shrugged and turned around to say that it’s ok to just leave it unanswered.

But I was too late, my senior surgeon had already answered the call, ‘Hello.’

I called out, ‘just tell him I am scrubbed. I will call him later.’

He ignored me and spoke into the phone. ‘Sorry, she can’t come to the phone at the moment.’  A pause. ‘No, she’s not scrubbed. She’s busy doing a lap dance.’ A dramatic sigh. ‘In my lap, of course. And she’s very good at it too.’ He cleared his throat and held the phone away from his ear when a barrage of words came through the earpiece. ‘Look, why don’t you ring back later when she’s not busy. I can’t concentrate enough to take a message at the moment.’ He promptly hung up.

At my appalled look, he flashed me an evil smile and said, ‘Well, that will keep his mind busy for a while.’  For the rest of my term with him, whenever I saw his phone sitting on the bench next to mine, I considered ringing his wife. Luckily I refrained, because a few months after I moved onto the next team, I found out that he had left his wife for a young physiotherapist whom he was having an affair with.

When I was a surgical trainee, I was an easy target for the anaesthetists, especially the senior ones. They often told me that I was too serious and needed to lighten up. They wanted me to be different to the arrogant surgeons who couldn’t take a joke, or snap at anyone who tried to make fun of them. I worked hard during my training and spent more hours in the operating theatres than any other trainee in my service, so it was no surprise that I became fair game to all my anaesthetic and nursing colleagues.

Once I was performing a traumatic laparotomy, repairing bowel in a penetrating abdominal injury. There were lots of blood and my junior resident and I had our hands full trying to stop intrabdominal bleeding. It was unpleasant as his abdomen was also full of faeces as the bowel was lacerate in several locations. At one stage, some of the wash fluid, blood and poo were spilling over the sides of the operating table and I remember thinking that my surgical boots will definitely need a wash after work. Half way through the operation. I realised that my feet felt rather…. damp. I shuddered as I realised that most likely some of the crap has gotten in from the top of the boots (as I stupidly tucked my pants into them), and that I was probably standing and squelching in blood and poo. I wiggled my toes and felt my soggy socks slosh freely in fluid.

It was then I noticed giggling coming from behind the drapes at the head of the table (where the anaesthetic staff usually hide). I looked up at them suspicious, then I looked down. There in my boots were two intravenous lines, connected to two bags of saline, and there was water spilling over the top edge of my boots.  My feet were drenched in bucket-full boots. Honestly, you guys have the mentality of 5 year-olds, I said in exasperation. They kept laughing, like children laughing at fart jokes.

One night, we were putting some fingers back on. This can take up to 12-18 hours depending on the number of fingers we needed to reattach. Unfortunately I had to reattach four, which meant it was going to be a very long night. The anaeasthetic consultant came up to me and asked me how long it was going to take. I shrugged and said as long as I needed.  He then waited until I was scrubbed and sat myself down at the operating table. He then crouched under the hand table, and attached small neurostimulator pads on my calf. These are often used on patients while they are asleep, a shock is delivered through these pads into the patient, and cause a small electric shock, siginifcant enough to generate muscle contracture directly under the pads. This tests the muscular tension of unconscious patients to determine how relaxed and deep in sleep they are under anaesthesia. Well, In this particular instance, they were not on the patient – I found them on both of my calves instead.

He then retreated back to his position next to the anaesthetic machine and held up the remote control for the neurostimulator. With a slightly evil look on his face, he announced to everyone. ‘I will turn this on once every hour, just so you know how long you are taking.’

Trust me, if anyone was asleep in my operating theatre while I was pulling this all-nighter surgery, they were promptly woken up every hour with loud obscenities. I tend to get lost in time when I operate and the hourly reminder were coming faster than I expected, and each time, I would be caught unaware by the sudden jolt and contraction of my calf muscles.  These episodes were loudly accompanied by a physical jolt, yell of shock and swearing, repeatedly, in that order. It was only 12 hours later, when I finished the surgery that he told me he was actually giving me a shock at random, basically when he got bored.

To top it off, I didn’t realised that he and the nurses were in cahoots with each other. During the surgery, he apparently rang my mobile phone. I forgot to take it out of my pockets in my scrub pants before I scrubbed, so it was ringing away under my gown whilst I was trying to concentrate. The nurse offered to take it out of my pocket to answer it. I turned around in my chair and she fumbled under my sterile gown and shirt to grab my phone. Obviously, it was too late to answer the phone and she told me that it was a silent number, so I left it at that.

What I didn’t realise, was that the whole exercise was so that she could untied my scrub pants. So, as I stood up for the first time after sitting at the table for 12 hours, my pants fell down to my ankles. Lucky I was wearing my undies that day.

Of course, now that I am all grown up as a fully-qualified specialist, I am proof that good students emulate their teachers – and trust me, I learnt from the best. Although in today’s climate of political correctness, some pranks can be taken the wrong way and one must be very careful with the selection of target victim. But I am a true disciple of my forebearers and my pranks are legendary. After all, a sense of humour can be the life-saver in times of desolating fatigue, despair and desperation. I firmly believe that learning to laugh at ourselves is the key for humiliy and perspective. I have learnt, however, that you have to expect to get as good as you give.