Studying medicine after a failed surgery


Iatrogenic. The words echoed throughout the lecture room, and I immediately wrote them down. It’s been a few weeks since I completed my medical degree. I was surprised to hear that I had never heard of this word before, as it describes a condition or illness that occurs as a result of medical care or the actions of a medical worker. This phenomenon is exactly what inspired me to apply to medical school.

In 2017, I had spinal surgery for a herniated disc. During surgery, the surgeon accidentally operated on the wrong part of my back. After months of excruciating pain and panicking anxiety, the problem became apparent. But it didn’t end there.

Corrective surgery, post-operative complications, additional pain and stress finally gave up on my plans to return to my beloved Berlin. In Berlin he had spent years enjoying a debauched life of underemployment.

Instead, I moved in with my father in Alice Springs to recuperate.

I couldn’t quite get over the feeling that drugs were hurting my health again in a different way.

I spent the next few years picking myself up, looking back and reinventing myself. I started studying again and applied for medical school. After all, there were many reasons for my career turnaround. Chief among them was the hope that by helping others heal, they might somehow make amends for what had happened to them.

Luckily, the world ended as soon as I started class.

In 2020, while the new coronavirus is spreading all over the world, we third-year medical students were sent back to Japan to study. That’s when I really discovered the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle for people whose spines had been transformed into dangerous, bony Jenga games.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was unable to go to the gym or swim, and my physical therapy and family support was also limited. Add to that the countless hours cramped in front of your webcam, and you end up with multiple emergency room visits, new symptoms, and diminished function. By the end of 2021, I woke up one morning with my legs numb from long-term nerve root compression and felt it was time to take a breather.

I couldn’t quite get over the feeling that drugs were hurting my health again in a different way. I knew I needed time to recover. Luckily, I was old enough for a college student at her age of 39 and soon got a paid job that allowed her to take a year off from medical school to focus on self-care.

Nevertheless, over the course of my research, my spine disease progressed from injury to disability with no signs of abating. This condition has now taken center stage in my life and all plans and decisions are carefully made to avoid a recurrence. My goal is to keep the surgery going for as long as possible, or at least until I graduate, to see if spinal fusion or disc replacement can stabilize the fickle vertebrae. Both are daunting prospects that represent a trade-off between reduced pain and reduced mobility.

Medicine is notoriously unforgiving of its practitioners…[ting] Physicians are under tremendous pressure to sacrifice self-care, health and well-being for their careers

Unfortunately, the disease had already had a major impact on what would otherwise be a rewarding return to research, with an unexpected exacerbation of debilitation interrupting initial clinical placement. This situation forces me to make a new choice that I wanted to avoid as much as possible, as I try to balance self-care and schoolwork.

I observed that medicine is notoriously unforgiving of its practitioners (unless, of course, the practitioner happens to operate on the wrong part of the back). But it puts a lot of pressure on doctors to sacrifice self-care, health and well-being for their careers. This is counterintuitive because in a profession aimed at promoting and mentoring the health of others, people often find it very difficult to practice what they preach.

Overwork, extreme fatigue, toxic work environments, and a breaking point health care system are reported to be the reasons for junior doctors to consider changing jobs. is in sight. Clearly, a culture of success through self-sacrifice is unsustainable.

That’s where the question arises. Why shouldn’t doctors be healthy and happy? Why should medicine make anyone sick, including its practitioners?

The upside is that the work itself can be a marvel. I’m just beginning my clinical career, but I know that strangers of relatives will come to you for care, work with you to improve their health, and encourage those around them to do the same. I am already amazed at the extraordinary privilege of working and encouraging others to do so.

Why shouldn’t doctors be healthy and happy? Why should medicine make anyone sick, including its practitioners?

Luckily, I have great clinical mentors who are encouraging and accommodating, and don’t mind incorporating impromptu physical therapy between patients to prevent back pain.

Healthcare workers who benefit from a positive work environment may not need as much encouragement to persevere. But deep down, I think all physicians should be encouraged to keep work-life balance in mind from the beginning of their research. To think about what makes us happy, healthy, and well-rounded healthcare professionals, and to set aside time for ourselves to be healthy.

Perhaps that will be the ray of hope for my spinal disease. It’s about forcing a pace of study and work because you can’t overdo it with your physical situation. I have learned the hard way to work within my limits. Otherwise, you risk spending a week or two dragging between bed, GP, radiologist, and physical therapist.

For a more sympathetic moment, I imagine my former surgeon may have suffered some form of ill health from the pressures of his chosen career. Perhaps that contributed to the mistake he made that day. I’ll never know if the drugs make his health worse, but it’s not surprising to me after going through the first few years of this career.

Roland Bull is a medical student, author, and comedian with an interest in sexual health and LGBTQIA+ issues. You can follow him on Instagram @rollyw00d.





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