Fewer patients, more friends

On the face of it, a day at the clinic seems very social. I see patients, one after the other, from nine until four, with a break for lunch. Most of my patients I've known for a while now. I get caught up on their their lives - school, family, work. "How are your spirits these days?" I ask almost every time, patting my right hand over my heart, using the most effective cross-cultural mood elicitor I know.  It doesn't get much more personal than this. It's just me and the patient, our knees almost touching, in a small exam room with the door closed and an interpreter behind my left shoulder. 

I leave work after a day of this, drive the five minutes to pick up my three-year-old from preschool, and begin the commute home to Deep Cove. Suddenly I'm ravenous. I ask Ilia what's left in her lunch box and she hands me some carrot sticks and cubes of cheddar from the back seat. Ten minutes later, around Grandview and Nanaimo, I bottom out, utterly exhausted. The idea of having to shepherd four kids through meal time and bedtime chores after this feels impossible. 

If Pete's not away on business, I come home to sous-vide salmon and curried cauliflower, and we divide up the after-dinner work. If he's traveling, we eat the lasagna my thirteen-year-old put in the oven when the big kids came home from school. Then I oversee homework and lunch making, brushing teeth and laying out tomorrow's school uniforms.

I cut corners. I pick the bedtime book with one sentence per page. I move up the bedtimes of the kids too young to notice. I want the noise to stop, even the singing. They're getting shortchanged, I think, but  I'll make it up to them later in the week.

For years, I've seen patients Monday, Tuesday and Friday. Mid-week I'm home with my youngest, grateful that Deep Cove is off the beaten path. We can't see our neighbours from our place. Looking up from the laptop now, I see a stand of waving cedars, the gunmetal grey winter waters of Indian Arm, and the dark bulk of Belcarra rising from the opposite shore. The solitude is perfect. No play dates, thanks. No community centres or meeting up for lunch, either. I might be up for something on the weekend, but it'll take until Saturday evening to recover from Friday's walk-in clinic.  I need a respite from human contact, and I prefer as much solitary time outside the clinic as four kids will give me. 

Where I live. And why I live here. © Martina Scholtens. Deep Cove, BC. 

Where I live. And why I live here. © Martina Scholtens. Deep Cove, BC. 

I forget, though, that seeing patients isn't at all a substitute for catching up with friends over drinks.  At the clinic, the topics of conversation, the confidences, the complaints - they're all one-sided. It often strikes me that family physicians are professional friends: non-judgmental, accessible, reliable, skilled listeners and excellent secret-keepers. There's pleasure in seeing patients, but really, it's business. 

If you had told me that I'd have four kids and eight hundred patients, and feel lonely, I'd never have believed you. But my work drains me to the point that all of my spare time is spent trying to recuperate. Pete would love to have people over more, and vacation with other families. I always imagined a noisy, boisterous home with friends and family coming and going, but with my work commitments, I don't have the psychological reserves to make it happen.

Then I had an epiphany. Clinical work exhausts me with the people lineup, and my social life is extremely thin because I need stretches of alone time to recharge from work. I ought to reverse this. I need to implement more solitary time at work, and more people-time in after hours. 

I've started on this.  In October I gave up my Friday clinic. I've worked Fridays since I finished residency in 2003. Now I finish the week with administrative work and other projects instead, alone in my organization's secret library. Just me, a row of computers with access to our clinic's EMR, shelves of journals on paediatric nutrition, and a yellowing poster on Boolean operators. I can do this very happily for much of the day, and still have the energy to go out with Pete at night. It's been life changing. 

I knew from residency that I couldn't see forty patients a day, five days a week. I find it hard to do half that. Maybe it's that my patient demographic, refugees with trauma histories and multiple barriers to care, are particularly challenging. Or maybe it's the demands of four kids. Maybe our clinic needs to use a different model of care. Maybe an office with some natural light and a view of the North Shore Mountains would help. There are probably other changes I could make to bolster my psychological fortitude and soldier on, even thrive, in this setting. But for now, I've reduced my work hours devoted to direct patient care.

Three months in, and no regrets. Before, I felt like I spent everything at the office. Now I've got this feeling of having a bit of pocket money. There's the promising jingle of spare change.

crossposted at www.mothersinmedicine.com