I had about half a year away from clinical work. This was the longest time away from hospitals since I started clinical school. In some ways, nothing much has changed – the paperwork, the unpredictability in workload, the conflicts. Yet, time away was not time wasted. I felt refreshed and more interested in the people around me, and their stories.
Doctors of all kinds
Several university classmates and co-interns from my old hospital. A registrar who quit surgical training after contracting a serious infection from a patient. A mini-property tycoon (buying a property a year since internship) making negotiations for his seventh investment purchase during our lunch breaks. Many studying and working including the ophthalmology registrar with a PhD who’s about to start another Master’s. The advanced trainee who had a baby and put her training on hold. Watching her doodle on the mindfulness colouring books in the most serene manner, you would never guess that she used to be an angry medical registrar. A few figuring out their paths or ones with several careers already – including an ICU / ED dual trainee who was a previous head of department in nuclear medicine. He also happens to run a free general practice clinic overseas several months of the year.
I hadn’t found many kindred spirits during these hospital years. A nice and unexpected aspect of locuming is discovering the range of characters in medicine, some with similar outlooks on life and medicine.
“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” – from Anne of Green Gables
Patients of all kinds
People have interesting lives outside of their patient role. A patient in ICU said he was overseas often, working as a magician. In jest I asked whether he could do a trick and he said he was too sick. Days later he pulled out a deck of cards (and was out of ICU). He asked me to think a card, any card. Without me physically picking out a card from his hand, he “guessed” the card of the number and suit I was thinking of. He showed me the card which even had my initials at the corner. I’m sure he didn’t have time to scribble on it with a marker whilst I was watching him!
“Tell me, how did you do it?” And as expected, the answer was…
Another time I saw a mysterious, black leather-bound notebook on a patient’s the bedside table. It belonged to the patient’s wife. She was an artist and it was her daily sketch diary – what lovely ink and watercolour sketches to brighten the most mundane day at the hospital!
Long love stories
Patients, especially the elderly, are surprisingly open with their life stories. A man in his eighties started talking about how much he was in love with his wife. He pulled out two photos of her from his wallet – one recent and one from her twenties.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he said, admiring the photos once more. Holding back tears he said, “I miss her so much. She died last year and I’m so lonely. When you’re a young fella you can walk into a pub and make friends but it’s different now. Some women are interested in me but I don’t think I’ll get married again. We were one for over sixty years!”
“Do you think it’s worth getting married if you have to separate in the end?”
“Yes, yes I would marry her again. The love and companionship you give each other… and I was so in love with her!” He went on to tell the story of how they met in the military, how she dropped hints but he didn’t pick them up because as a new recruit he thought he didn’t have a chance.
He paused, then lowered his voice. “Mind you, we had our rough patches too. Once she caught me doing the wrong thing, you know. She called and said, ‘you come back to me right now because you’re my husband and we promised to be one. I forgive you.'”