On a weekend morning I was scheduled to work, I slept through the alarm. By nearly two hours.
Jumping out of bed and throwing water on my face, my mind scanned through a myriad of terrible scenarios for which I would be responsible. What if one of my patients had an emergency or there was no one to check in patients for their surgeries?
I finally made it to the ICU at 7 a.m., too late to hear the report from the night team.
I ran up to a nurse practitioner sitting at the computer, and poured out all of my fears.
"I am SO sorry that I'm late. I don’t know how I could have overslept. I feel terrible. Is everything okay?"
She smiled, then looked a little perplexed.
"Hi! You must have been so tired. Everything is fine. Were you concerned about something specific? Why wouldn't everything be okay?"
First came my immense relief to learn nothing bad happened.
Then my colleague’s reaction sank in. She was right. Why wouldn't everything be okay just because I was late?
Two years of residency have instilled in me a highly structured way of living. Every morning we go on patient rounds at the break of dawn. The first operation starts at 7:30 AM. Part of the reason I dreaded being late was that this had become my circadian rhythm, a stable routine from which I could not imagine deviating.
What would happen if there were unanswered calls, or if medication orders were placed even a few hours later. As residents, we perform many tasks each day, with constant calls adding to the basic list.
Feeling responsible for patients is good. Thinking things would fall apart without me? That does sound a bit outlandish.
I used to think that being good at my job and being valued was to be indispensable. I used to take it as a compliment if things could not progress without me. But there is an important distinction between being valuable and being indispensable.
One morning, I asked the attending surgeon if I could attend an upcoming conference.
He smiled and said, “Jason, go ahead. We like having you, but we don’t need you.”
His comment reminded me of the reality that I am a part of a supportive team designed to function without relying on any one member.
My attending’s easily granted permission reminded me being dispensable is not an insult to worth, but a compliment to the team. I attended the conference without a single worry.
Since then, I have had to miss days to attend other important events in my life. But my team has been there to care for our patients when I am not.
I no longer operate based on fear of what might happen, but rather on trust in my team to handle everything in my absence, just as I would do for them when they need it.
It is human to make errors and assumptions, even small ones like sleeping through an alarm or thinking you are the only one who can do something. But being a team member is to be reminded that we are all human and all working together.