Taking Sick Days in Medicine

As my regular readers may have noticed, I tend to write about what I know. I think it’s the best way for me to choose what to write about because then I don’t feel like a phony, which is something I sometimes feel just as a by-product of being a student of medicine.

Another way in which I feel like a bit of a phony is when I get sick and have to miss school. It’s especially tough on rotations because you feel like you’re letting everyone down, as if the whole team is somehow there for you when in reality they would function completely the same without you (although they may miss your positive attitude/humor/white coat pocket snack stash).

For example, I get migraines often and they are only partially managed with medication. Sometimes the meds just don’t work or I’m not able to take them in time. Once I went a whole month without them because there was a snafu with the pharmacy and I couldn’t refill them. During that time I was so nervous I would get a migraine and have to call in sick that the whole time I was filled with anxiety over the mere possibility. Even if I do actually take the sick day I just sit at home feeling nauseas and ill, arguing with myself over whether I am sick “enough” for it to be justified that I take the day to rest and recuperate.

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For once this is not a problem unique to medicine. In America, our workplace culture does not wholeheartedly support taking time off for illness. Instead, people are impressed that you made it to work that one day last year that you had the stomach flu (although maybe your immediate coworkers sanitized their hands a few extra times that day). People have responsibilities and, especially in the medical field, feel unable to forego them.

So when I had to go home early on a long call day because I almost passed out in the ED, or the time I had to miss a day of work because I was still battling a weekend-long migraine, I felt horrible. I felt like I was somehow shirking my duties. I was a bad student. Maybe I wasn’t as sick as I thought, maybe I was just making it up. The response from the doctors I worked with to my several emails and voicemail where I apologized profusely for my body betraying me by getting sick? “Please take the rest of the day off if you aren’t feeling well.” They weren’t angry at all, they didn’t punish me or tell me off, they simply gave me a sick day.

I’m still working on being kind to myself but I hope hearing about my experience helps others to feel more comfortable asking for the help they need. Whether you are physically ill or desperately need a mental health day, medicine needs more people who are able to take care of themselves. Perhaps if we all start to do this more, programs will begin to offer more support for not just students but also all of the exhausted interns, burnt-out residents and overworked attendings.

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Chantal Mendes

Chantal Mendes is a writer who loves science. She graduated with a journalism degree from Boston University (go Terriers!) and is currently a third year at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. In addition to her interests in cardiology and pediatrics, Chantal enjoys rock-climbing, anything Lord of the Rings related and looking for the best poutine in Vermont. She shares stories of her journey from journalist to prospective doctor on her blog, journalistdoingscience.blogspot.com and tweets @Chantal_Mendes.