Words by Imogen Bicknell
Originally published on: http://www.mentalscale.com/
When I started my job as a junior doctor, I knew there’d be things that would knock me sideways. I didn’t however, anticipate a pandemic.
I can’t quite believe the rapid pace of change that has swept the country. It’s a continued shock, one which we’ve had little time to adapt to. Everyone’s lives have been impacted. Our emotions on a rollercoaster beyond our control. One day we can make dark humour out of the absurdity of the situation, the next day we feel lost and despairing. You see the worry in people’s faces, their livelihood threatened. You feel the infective tension – panic buying in supermarkets, irrational hysteria and caution around social distancing.
Words can’t quite convey the current impact of coronavirus. We’ve led such privileged lives for so long. Never had we had contingencies placed on where we can or can’t go, never had we had so much uncertainty or universal crisis.
Initially, my thoughts were purely selfish – worry over cancelled holidays and music events, mourning the lovely summer I’d imagined. I was due to move onto my new Psychiatry post on 1st April. Instead, it was mandated that all junior doctors were to stay in their current roles for continuity during these unprecedented times.
I felt hugely disappointed about losing out on my next job. After four months in General Surgery, I was burnt out and ready for change. I had a wonderful placement lined up in Psychiatry, and I was hoping it would be key in deciding on my specialty. I couldn’t wait for 5pm finishes rather than 12-hour marathon shifts. There would be fewer weekends on call, a sense of routine and glorious summer evenings spent at home cooking nice meals and spending time with my boyfriend.
This mindset changed in a matter of days as I realised it was a call to arms and had to be done. In some ways I am fortunate to stay in a role that’s familiar, as opposed to many other foundation doctors who will be deployed into the unknown. Mentally it took time to adjust. My mood was erratic. I kept getting headaches. I don’t think we can underestimate the impact this will have on our hospitals, and the reality is NHS staff will be at exponential risk to a potentially deadly virus. On the other hand, I am very, very fortunate to be employed. I have a paycheque I can rely on and there will be no shortage of work. My heart goes out to those suffering the financial brunt of this pandemic. I’m also young and in good health. I cannot imagine what it must be like for those who are pregnant, in treatment for cancer or homeless at this time.
The security of healthcare was part of the attraction for me, it’s amazing to always feel needed and have purpose. I’m grateful that during times of uncertainty, medicine can give me this. It was the same on a more personal level at university when I felt very lost and unsure about other aspects of life. Medicine gave me discipline and reason to keep going. However, the upsides of security and regular pay comes with its own challenges. It’s incredibly stressful work – exacerbated in times of crisis. It’s often thankless and the working culture of pushing yourself beyond your capacity without breaks can consume you. The responsibility can also weigh heavy and the emotional rollercoaster of being in such close proximity to life and death is huge. It has to be experienced to be known. I will never forget my first cardiac arrest, it felt like both a trauma and bereavement and it’s something I will always carry with me. I don’t yet know how coronavirus will impact our work or mentality, but we are preparing for the worst. We are buckling together. We will bear the scars and it will make us better doctors.
Working on the frontline I’m sure has added stresses if you’re juggling childcare. It’s estimated over a third of our nurses have young children so it’s unknown how that’s going to impact the workforce now the schools have closed. I also take it for granted that I’m young, fit and healthy – I’m least likely to get ill from the virus. However, the NHS staff are a range of ages, some who do have health issues – so their risk of working could be paramount. I’m always in awe at the dedication of our staff.
I will always believe it to be a privilege to practice medicine. I took an oath when I graduated, and my sense of duty and care is always at the core of what I do. Selfishness is a survival instinct, rationally we can move past it and give ourselves greater sources of motivation and strength.
My last four months in General Surgery impacted my personal life, including my relationship. I have been snappier and more selfish, existing from shift to shift and just trying to cope with the exhaustion of it all. My sleep was poor, I had less opportunity to exercise and I felt disconnected from patients as a result of this specialty – leading to huge feelings of despondency at work.
I barely had time to give back to myself, let alone my friends, family or my boyfriend. I felt fragmented. My partner gets the worst of me when I come home after another 12-hour shift mute and shattered. He’s had to pick up more of the domestic stuff and because I’m so burnt out I have no space to listen to his work difficulties, but I expect him to be there for mine. On days off my mood is unpredictable as work anxiety spreads into my downtime and I struggle to switch off. I made peace with it knowing it would just be for four months. I knew that moving onto Psychiatry would give me back my zeal for life professionally and personally and it would be a kinder way of working. I’d have the space to give back to our relationship. Now that’s gone, with a further four months in Surgery, we’ve had to re-assess how we as a couple are going to handle the coming stresses.
Naturally, I am concerned about the impact on those close to me. I have friends who risk redundancies and businesses going under. I fear for my fellow doctor friends in how we will cope. I fear for my elderly relatives and their health. I fear the emotional ramifications which will reverberate throughout the country.
My mind has been in overdrive. I’ve been distracted by my panic and found it difficult to read or listen to podcasts in the last few days. Work aside I have many small irrational fears ruminating. We’ve never had our way of life threatened like this before. For the first time it’s beyond our control and the uncertainty is terrifying. I fear silly things like running out of body lotion. I can feel my mind exacerbating with anxiety and I have fleeting thoughts of turning the tap on and no water coming out. The country slowly closing in, the apocalypse rising. It’s difficult to keep these fears in check. Usually I would step away from my phone and the news and just take a breather. But I felt bound in my duty as a doctor to keep updated on the health implications and the necessity of having knowledge to get by day to day. Like everyone I worried about lockdown, unable to exercise or take a much-needed walk in the park. Cabin fever is excruciating. I’m finding it difficult to motivate myself to exercise without the gym, I already miss my classes and weights!
In small ways I’ve notice people be kinder to one another. I’ve spoken to my neighbours more than ever, phoned all my loved ones and can find humour amongst all the strangeness. I’ve put forward the notion that there has never been a time to bring back hospital radio. Boosting morale is essential.
We’ve all had to process the shock. We can’t underestimate how swiftly this has come about and changed everything. We will find our new normal soon. We can take comfort that we are all in the same boat. It will be a strange spring and summer, quite unlike the one we hoped for. All we can do is look after each other. We will come out the other side. Looking outside and seeing the spring flowers bloom, it’s a reminder that life does go on.
Whilst I’m not at work I’ve been prioritising adjusting my mindset. I write gratitude lists each evening and set ‘intentions’ for the next day. I call them intentions rather than to do lists, so I don’t beat myself up if they get done or not. This focuses my mind and stops me becoming absorbed in worry. I find writing them down in a notebook most helpful. I treasure my days at home – reading in bed, gentle workouts, cleaning, good food and sitting on my bed with a coffee watching YouTube videos.
I’m finding my own reasons to be cheerful. These include spring flowers, letters/emails from friends, phone calls with loved ones, & Other Stories free delivery on all purchases, baking cookies, writing in notebooks, tidying cupboards and feeling grateful for my small little life I’ve built around me. It’s filled with people I love, music I’ve collected, stacks of books and photographs from so many travels and festivals. I’m looking for the silver linings by looking inward, keeping my world small and appreciating the simple and mundane that, before this crisis, we took for granted. I’m keeping faith that we have enough infrastructure and knowledge in Britain to push through and recover. I’m thankful that we have technology to make self-isolating a little less lonely. I’m keeping faith that everything happens for a reason, nature has spoken and the waters in Venice have already turned clear from the absence of pollution and human destruction. The birds will sing louder. We will emerge from this kinder, wiser and more appreciative of everything we have. It’s a pause on the world, respite for nature and a reminder of our humanity.