Doctor fatigue has featured heavily in the media this week. There are tragic stories of fatal car accidents, and a survey of anaesthetists has revealed that half have had accidents or near misses after night shifts.
As a consultant who works at night rarely now, I look back at the long nights and deep fatigue with a sense of achievement – I got through them without harming anyone, or myself. But the challenge, both physical and mental, was great. I will share some memories.
First night shift as a house officer in Bristol; I lay down in all my clothes, anticipating the first bleep with a mixture of excitement and fear. I thought I would never go to sleep. But nature insisted, I drifted off, and an hour later the bleep shrilled. It was 2.30AM. And oh the nausea! I leaned over, wondering whether to vomit onto the carpet tiles, suppressed the urge, gulped some water, then headed out to the wards. Ten minutes later I felt absolutely fine. I was wide awake, and ready. The first of so many awakenings.
For some it wasn’t that easy.
An SHO colleague went to do a blood gas. This involves passing a needle into the radial artery, watching the column of oxygen-rich haem rise into the syringe, then pressing down with some gauze to prevent a haematoma forming. As you press, you make conversation, or, if the patient is too ill to talk, you think of other things. This SHO fell asleep. She was found kneeling by the bed, as though in prayer, with one hand draped across the insentient patient’s abdomen, her head resting on its side by his hand.
Although we were not expected to sleep, and no provision was made for it, I quickly made the observation that as little as 45 minutes of shut-eye helped to make the next day a whole lot better. So I grabbed sleep where I could: on endoscopy trolleys (causing three months of neck pain), on couches in waiting rooms (too narrow, I fell onto the hard floor) and most controversially, on mattresses taken from unoccupied beds. Having lain down to sleep on the dusty floor of the doctors’ ward office only to come eye to eye with a cockroach, I stormed into an empty bay and dragged the thick, rubber-coated brick of foam off the bedframe.
“But that’s the MRSA bay!” called a nurse, “You can’t do that!”
During a spell in Sydney, where I worked 7 nights in a row on the ICU, I experienced strange personality changes. Generally placid, I found that fatigue led to disinhibition. In Circular Quay, waiting for a ferry to take me back to Neutral Bay after a long and sleepless night, I picked a magazine up from a kiosk and began to read it. It was 8AM. The owner of the kiosk walked around and said, “It’s not a bloody library.” His tone lit a fuse that had been dramatically shortened by the night, and I threw the magazine back at him, saying “Have it then!” That really wasn’t like me. The other personality change I noticed was emotional lability, leading to uncharacteristic crying during sentimental films; Finding Nemo, for instance.
To get through the deep trough that comes at 4AM, the time when our bodies crave sleep and threaten to shut down, I drank coffee, of course. In each hospital, I found the places where free drinks were available (hot water dispensers with large signs saying ‘PATIENTS ONLY’). As the night deepened, so did the layer of bargain granules in the plastic cups. By 4AM the ratio was close to 50:50. Once or twice, in a hurry and desperate for something to make me more alert on the way to an emergency, I poured dry granules straight into my mouth. Bitter.
The effect fatigue had on me during skilled tasks was interesting. Somehow, the importance of the situation beat the tiredness. I remember, during a long weekend (Saturday morning to Monday morning straight through, no protected sleep… followed by a routine Monday with ward round and clinic) how the corridor started to sway as I walked along it. The fluorescent tubes on the ceiling doubled up and shifted. I leaned against the wall and slapped my own cheek. It was important to be in control of my ocular muscles, because the task that awaited me was a central line insertion. This involved passing a thick needle into the vein that lies next to the carotid artery. By the time I held the needle in my latex covered fingers, sweating in the surgical gown, with a bright light shining down on the iodine-stained skin, I was all there.
The terrible stories of doctors dying in car accidents are not surprising. My methods of staying awake in the car were typical. Driving back from Kent to London, along the dreary A2, I played music at maximum volume, I bit the back of my hand until it hurt enough to squeeze adrenaline from my glands, and I hung my head out of the window, forcing my face into wind and rain like an unintelligent dog. I was lucky.
Back in my flat, the last vestiges of coordination left me, and I could be relied on to break dishes or drop glasses in the kitchen. A costly habit.
However practiced you are at jumping out of sleep into action, or pushing through the 4AM barrier, it is never easy. The body hates it, and rebels. The brain lags behind, and your true personality becomes obscured. Unfortunately, disease does not wear a watch. But however bad or long the night, the sun will rise, the windows will brighten, and your friends will appear, ready to take the problems from you.
[Advice on fatigue from Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland here]
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