Little moments with big impacts: great leaders through the eyes of a timid registrar
By Casey Bennetts
I was a fourth-year student when we met. A mother reluctantly attended the ED on her teenager’s insistence, for investigation into her shortness of breath. In part I remember the case because it was my first cardiac arrest. You spoke to me – clearly, gently, encouragingly: “Are you ready to do CPR?”. I had been chosen. This in itself was striking because of the stark contrast it offered to my previous med school experience of blending into the beige walls for fear of being noticed.
I took my place on the patient’s right. She only had one eye and it was open, staring up at the ceiling as I stared back at her. Her eye bulged rhythmically with each compression. What happened to your eye? I think you’re dying. Your son is outside. Shit.
The other reason I remember this case is because I left that night knowing emergency medicine was where I needed to be. You made up my mind. Your attempt to save this woman’s life inspired the hell out of me. You wove calm amongst chaos. You spoke few words but every one mattered. You listened. You delivered dignity and respect to a grieving family in spades. You bothered to find me after it was all over and you said “You did a good job.” You answered every one of my questions patiently, as though they – and I – mattered.
Later I overhead you hiding away in a corner, cooing to your toddlers over the phone, telling them you loved them and wishing them a good night. As the years went by I learned you did this every night.
For epitomising humanity, thank you.
A couple of years passed and I began my year as a resus SHO at a trauma centre, a tightly primed ball of enthusiasm, fearful and eager to please, topped with a healthy helping of imposter syndrome.
You smelled it a mile off and kept me close. “Stop saying sorry. You deserve to be here”, you would say after I let a patient breach; after I picked up too many patients; after I forgot to chart the ADT. You name it. Again. And again. And again. Perhaps I’m a slow learner but years of it being ingrained into me that I was ‘just a girl’, ‘just the student’, or ‘just an intern’ didn’t shake so easily for me.
How many times did you tirelessly correct me until I believed you? One hundred? One thousand? Maybe more, I don’t know. I have joked with you a few times that teaching me to not be sorry for my existence is your legacy. The truth is, that gift is more valuable to me every single day than any medical pearl you might have shared.
For believing in me, thank you.
The year progressed and primary exams loomed near. Whilst the written exams were an attainable goal for me, the VIVAs left me a white-knuckling, sweating, nauseated wreck. You told me that I was ready. You told me to walk into that room and represent myself accurately and that if I did, I would succeed. I failed by two marks and my heart was broken at the idea of disappointing you. Instead, you banded a team around me and made it your duty to get me through.
On a horrendously hot February afternoon you and I were cooped up inside, in the thick of yet another practice VIVA, when a colleague popped into the room to ask you if you’d like to head out for drinks. I had no idea your shift was over. You quickly declined and ask me to carry on. Later, I asked you why you didn’t want to go out – you responded simply with “Watching you grow is so much more rewarding”. I didn’t quite know what to say at the time.
For the sacrifices you make, thank you.
It was a typical busy afternoon in acute, and I was the resus reg that day. A paediatric resus rolled in. We are not a paediatric hospital. An overwhelmed, terrified nanny pulled her precious cargo out of the back of her car and presented him to the triage nurse. The nanny just happened to look into her rear view mirror and there he was, seizing, grunting, not breathing properly. It wouldn’t stop. The triage nurse immediately ran the child to our resus bay, yelling ‘paeds resus NOW’ as she scooted past. I was on airway. The fair, blonde, roly-poly lump of innocence looked uncannily like my son. I was unsettled. It was when you called him by my son’s name that I realised you had noticed, too. Why did you do that? Perhaps it was the countless registrar teaching sessions you had spent with my baby boy, carrying him, rocking him to sleep, feeding him, in the name of supporting my training.
You carried on saving this baby’s brain quietly, calmly, emanating a sense of ease. As you gave the midaz; as you drilled into his tibia; as you gave the midaz again; and as we all watched his tiny body finally relax, I was grateful for your presence.
Soon enough, the child began to cry. I wanted to cry too. Instead I cooed to him to make us both feel better. Later that night, you sent me a text message, “I hope you’re doing okay?”. I thought of your daughter, and your unborn son, and hoped the same of you.
For always watching over me, thank you.
A dear friend of mine died a month ago now – 30 years old, pristine specimen, aortic dissection at the gym. I imagine he never had a chance. He came to your resus bay in cardiac arrest and you threw everything you had at him for 90 minutes. On the day he died I had never met you before. A fellow registrar told me that under your care he was in the best hands, that she would trust you with her life. I slept a little better knowing that you were there.
We met three weeks later when I came to your hospital to deliver a token of appreciation from his family. You serendipitously happened to be on duty. When you greeted me I fell apart, delivering a barely comprehensible ‘thank you” and a rainfall of lacrimal secretions. You smiled, touched me on the shoulder and took me to a quiet space. You sat with me and listened to my thanks, my sorrow, and other various ramblings. You shared my grief, you smiled when I showed you photos of him well. You thanked me for coming. When I apologised for taking up so much of your time you stopped me and said “My job is to prioritise. Right now you are my priority.” For taking the time to care, thank you.
To the leaders of a new generation: your words and your actions are defeating the forces that foster negativity in medicine. Thank you for teaching your trainees in the smallest of moments that we matter, and for inspiring us to not only be better doctors, but to be better people.