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I hate being on-call - I’m just not good at sleeping on the job

Written by Dr Genevieve Yates · Tuesday 14th January 2014

BOXING Day, 1.30am. “Are you the doctor on call?” I wrenched my reluctant brain from its REM state. “Yes.”

“I’m worried about my wife. She’s 16 weeks pregnant and very gassy.”

“Gassy?”

“Burping and farting. Smells terrible! It’s keeping us both awake. I’m worried it could be serious.”

By the time I ascertained that there were no sinister symptoms and that the likely culprit was the custard served with Christmas pudding (the patient was lactose intolerant), I was wide awake. My brain refused to power down for hours, as if out of spite for being so rudely aroused.

I have a confession to make. When the Australian Federal Government announced that it was planning to abolish after-hours practice incentive payments, I was delighted. I know, I know, I should have been outraged along with the rest of you. After all, the RACGP predicted that after-hours care would be decimated if incentives were removed. Comparisons were made with the revamp of the UK system in 2004, which led to 90% of the profession opting out of after-hours work. Much as I sympathised, I was secretly rubbing my hands together with selfish glee. Surely this would mean that our semi-rural practice would stop doing all of our own on-call and free me from my after-hours responsibilities?

I detest being on call. I loathe it with a passion completely out of proportion to the imposition it actually causes. I’m on call for the practice and our local hospital only once a week and the workload isn’t onerous. Middle-of-the-night calls aren’t all that frequent, but my sleep can be disturbed by their mere possibility, leaving me tired and cranky. If I’m forced suddenly into “brain on, work mode” by a phone call, I can kiss hours of precious slumber goodbye.
I love to sleep, but, as with drawing and tennis, I’m not very good at it. I gaze with envy at those lucky devils who nap on public transport and fight malicious urges to disturb their peaceful repose. If I’m not supine, in a quiet, warm room, with loose-fitting clothing, a firm mattress and a pillow shaped just-so, I can forget any chance of sleep. Let’s just say I can relate to the Princess and the Pea story. I bet she wouldn’t have coped well with being phoned in the middle of the night either.

If these nocturnal calls were all bona fide emergencies, I wouldn’t mind so much. It’s the crap that really riles me. I’ve received middle-of-the-night phone calls from patients who are constipated, patients with impacted cerumen (“Me ear’s blocked, Doc. I can’t sleep”) and patients with insomnia who want to know if it’s safe to take a second sedative.

The call that took the on-call cake for me, though, was from a couple who woke me at 11.30 one night to settle an argument.

“My husband says that bacteria are more dangerous than viruses but I reckon viruses are worse. After all, AIDS is a virus. Can you settle it for us so we can get some sleep? It would really help us out.”

I kid you not.

Genevieve Yates is an Australian GP, medical educator, medico-legal presenter and writer. You can read more of her work at http://genevieveyates.com

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