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Reflections on a pandemic

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Life and work as we know it has changed, and changed utterly

By Dr Diarmuid O'Shea, Registrar, RCPI

The lifting of restrictions in Ireland has begun and we are slowly returning to a “new normal”.  I am sure, like me, you find it difficult to put into words the experiences we have had over the past eight weeks. Life and work as we know it has changed, and changed utterly.  Now we collectively hold our breath to see what happens over the next few weeks - watching test results, hospital admissions, ICU admissions, the numbers dying, and will “the curve” stay flat.

I watched with admiration as colleagues, doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, support staff and management teams right across the community and hospital sector came together to meet extraordinary challenges in a very short space of time.

Each of us is having a uniquely individual experience of the pandemic

While our collective experiences have much in common, each of us is also having a uniquely individual experience of this pandemic. Now is also a time for each of us to stop, pause and reflect. Even if you are not the type of person to keep a diary, I would encourage you to write a short account of your own story of work and life in the early stages of these COVID-19 times. Look on it as a ‘message in a bottle’ - capture it and seal it.

In case you are not aware, the RCPI Heritage Centre is seeking to capture healthcare workers’ experiences on the pandemic and is inviting you to submit an account of your experiences to the archive to, as a record of your unique experience, and to aid future research.

Adapting to change

Behind the scenes, away from the frontline, RCPI has been adapting at a pace that matches everything you have seen happen in the workplace.  We have lots to do and are very busy on your behalf. The dedicated College staff and team led by our President, the CEO, College Officers, Executive Board and Council, continues to work together to drive changes that will enable you to meet your training, educational and professional competence needs in a profoundly changed healthcare landscape.

One highly visible example of how we are adapting to the crisis is our masterclass webinar series on Covid-19.  We broadcast these clinical updates online to hundreds of doctors, allowing them to keep up to date with this new and rapidly evolving area of clinical practice. We know everything is not COVID-19 related, so you will see our masterclass webinar series evolve over the coming months. 

In July 2020 the planned changeover of BST and HST take place, admittedly in changing times. For the first time, this year’s Interns will start early, coming straight out of university, following early exams and virtual graduations. They will be a welcome early addition as they embark on their medical careers in truly unusual times. There is uncertainty about what is to happen in the year ahead. Doctors who answered Ireland’s call and returned to work in the Irish health service, as well as those who were planning to go abroad, will be looking for employment opportunities at a time when we badly need more doctors. We are working closely with the HSE to explore how best to achieve and support these doctors when appointed. Further updates on this will follow.

Those that step into new BST and HST roles will also need additional support.  Work and training as we know it is has changed and we need to figure out how best to support, record, and acknowledge this. What is absolutely certain is that the experience we have all had since March this year is one that no curriculum could have set out. So each of us, whether we are practicing doctors, Trainees, Members or Fellows must find a creative way of capturing the learning from these experiences. 

The emotional impact on this pandemic on us and the importance of self care

I have always been very proud of where I work and the people I work with.  Of late, I have watched with admiration and pride the commitment and dedication of the teams I work with. I have watched people, understanding the risks, selflessly come to work, day in, day out. I have watched doctors, young and not so young, flexibly and without a second thought cover shift after shift.  They have done this with a good humor and collegiality that makes me proud of the profession I am in and the training that RCPI provides. 

I have also watched as we have become tired by the relentless pace and demand on us all, as colleagues we work with anxiously await swab results or become ill, as we worry about what is happening to family and friends outside the workplace. I have watched as people grieve for lost family and friends.  While we have spent lot of time focusing on others, we must also focus on ourselves and each other in the workplace.     

We need to remain very aware of the importance of self-care, now more than ever. We spend most of our waking minutes thinking of others, but I urge you to give yourself time to reflect on how truly momentous and difficult the last few months have been. If you do not take care of yourself through all of this, you cannot effectively help and support others. So please take time for yourself. Acknowledge the work you have done, the contribution you have made to this moment in history, and know, as this pandemic passes, and it will pass, the support and care you delivered to your patients made a real difference in their lives. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk to a friend or a mentor. And remember that a few well-placed words of appreciation or encouragement to colleagues cost little, but can make a real difference in someone’s day.

If you feel overwhelmed, please be sure to avail of any of the services available to you through your work place and checkout the health and wellbeing supports listed on our website here

Thank you for all you are currently doing in your workplaces.  It is at times draining and exhausting, but together we are stronger. You are doing the College, our profession and our country proud.

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea

Registrar

Tel: 01 863 9763

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea is the Registrar of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. On taking up this role in 2014, he stepped down as Vice-President of Education and Professional Development, a role he held for 8 years.  He acted as the Masterclass Series Convenor in the RCPI since its inception in 2007.  He was National Specialty Director in Geriatric Medicine from 2000 – 2004. A UCD medical graduate, he served as Chair of the Irish Committee on Higher Medical Training from 2017 to 2019. He stepped down from his role as Clinical Lead for the National Clinical Programme for Older People in May 2019.  He is currently a Consultant Physician in Geriatric and General Medicine in St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin and is the current President of The Irish Gerontological Society of Ireland.