the chronicles of a House Elf: my 3rd month as a House Officer in Singapore + counting small blessings

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This is part of an ongoing monthly series capturing the highs, low (and everything in between) in my life as a freelance doctor working in Singapore. If you’re interested in finding out about medical/non-medical careers or getting answers to doctoring-related questions, check out my Chasing Careers series!

I’m not sure how time can feel like it’s passing both slowly and quickly at the same time, or maybe my perception of time is just warped from chronic exhaustion, but either way, we’ve somehow passed the 3-month mark of Housemanship. That’s 25% of Housemanship done, and just 1 month away to completing our very first posting & moving to another hospital/department, which is strangely bittersweet.

I just finished my last call of the month (Sunday-Monday) and am off to enjoy my first day of Annual Leave after 3 months! The theme of this month’s post is exhaustion/fatigue, because that’s the state I’ve been in for most of the month. Or perhaps burnout has hit me particularly early? (jk I’ve been burnt out since my days in Raffles and never quite had time to recover…😢)

Saying it’s been tiring is a vast understatement, but it’s not been all dark clouds and grey skies either. The bad/exhausting/intense days have been interspersed with occasional happy and carefree moments, and those small pockets of happiness are enough to keep me going or at least those are the lies I tell myself.

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And to be brutally honest, it’s not like we have a choice; we have to keep plodding on even if there are days when we wish we could have a break, since taking no-pay leave is not an option for local medical graduates (due to our 5-year government bond), except under exceptional circumstances or health/mental health issues, subject to approval from M0HH.

How my 3rd month’s been

The past month has been a rollercoaster of exhaustion and extremes of emotion, which I’m sure a lot of my peers would relate to. Any human made to work for ~30 hours straight (or more, depending on the specialty) generally results in a semi-dysfunctional mental state and has negative effects on one’s physical & mental health in the long run.

alt text for accessibility: cartoon of dog in a burning room, caption ‘This is fine’

When I talk to my non-medical friends about calls being ~30 hours long, most of them can’t even wrap their heads around it. We show up for our regular work day (doing work with our primary/daytime team) at around 6.30/7am, the call starts from 5pm till the next morning (during which we care for a few wards/floors worth of patients for the whole night), then we rejoin our primary team until the early afternoon before going home/post-call. So yes, we’re effectively in hospital from 6/7am till 1/2pm the next day. Some of my peers in Surgery don’t even have the privilege of going home early, and are in hospital for 36 hours straight.

And the craziest part is that we show up to work the next morning as per normal, without a proper rest day. This is in stark contrast to the good welfare/basic human rights for junior doctors on call in most other developed countries, where doctors do 24-hour calls and are given a full day of rest after that (source: my friends living/working in Aus/NZ/UK).

It’s brutal, and according to the CDC, being awake for at least 24 hours is equal to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10%., which is higher than the legal limit (0.08% BAC) in Singapore and the USA.

After doing 3 calls in 6 days at the start of this month due to a severe manpower crunch (which has since resolved), I fell ill and had to take 1 day of MC. A lot of my peers are also aware of the physical toll that calls have on our health, but there’s nothing we can do about it since it’s part and parcel of working in public hospitals, and someone needs to be there to care for patients overnight. It’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make, even if the hours are far from ideal or healthy.

3 months down…

I’m proud of myself (and all my fellow House Officer friends) for making it through yet another month of this job/lifestyle, and I know it’s not been the easiest for some of us, but we’ll keep supporting each other and plodding on until we reach April 2022 and become fully licensed doctors.

I’ve honestly been enjoying a relatively good quality of life in my department and I’ll definitely miss the supportive & collegial seniors/doctors, lovely nurses and my fellow House Officers once we leave the posting in a month’s time. While I didn’t select this posting when we applied for postings in M5 (I selected KKH Paeds but was given NUH OBGYN), I’m glad I ended up here after all. It’s had its fair share of ups and downs, but I’ll eventually look back on this posting with fondness, because it was a pretty good posting to begin my Housemanship journey with.

As tiring as Housemanship may be, it’s not all doom and gloom. I sometimes struggle to count my blessings, especially on days when the road ahead looks tortuous and unending. Reflecting on the highlights of this month (so I can look back on these tough times with fondness eventually):

  • I only had 5 calls this month (instead of 7, which had been the number we projected before we realised we were getting more manpower)! Feelings well-rested is something I’ll never take for granted again… :’)
  • I had relatively predictable and good work hours this month, so I was finally able to make weekday dinner plans with various friends. If you’re a doctor, you’d know how rare it is to be able to safely make plans without last-minute rescheduling. And the timing was fortunate as well, since dining in was banned with the return of P2HA shortly after I had finished meeting up with most of my close friends.
  • My girl-squad finally managed to schedule a beach picnic on a weekend where we miraculously weren’t on call or working. Swimming, taking selfies and enjoying finger food on a simple Sunday afternoon – it felt like the old carefree days we spent together in 2012. Pardon my digression, but the best part of RGS was the sisterhood and lifelong friends I made there. It’s been 8 years since graduation but I still hold such fond memories of that phase of our lives.
  • Miraculously, I had a full weekend off this month and was able to spend quality time with my extended family (while still adhering to social gathering limits), some of whom I hadn’t seen in a year due to COVID.
  • Finally getting to go on Annual Leave, a well-deserved respite from the relentless onslaught of work and calls. Hopefully I’ll feel more rejuvenated for my last month of OBGYN after this!
9 months to go

9 months to go, or as an OBGYN would say, it’s just a pregnancy. It’s a long yet short time – 9 long months of regular sleepless nights, endless paperwork, unpredictable hours; yet short, considering how we’ve worked towards this for 5 years, and our efforts are going to culminate in getting full registration soon enough.

Run at your own pace, make time for self-care, find a way to balance getting enough sleep with spending quality time with family/friends, and don’t ever be afraid of saying you need help/support. It’s okay to not be okay, and people are often more willing to help than we believe – you don’t have to suffer in silence and you are not alone!

Housemanship is a marathon, and it’s so important to pace yourself. Rephrasing RuPaul: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how the hell you gonna take care of somebody else?” (side note: any fellow Drag Race fans here?)

I’ll wrap up this post for now and take a quick nap to recover from my call, can’t wait to enjoy my 4 days of leave to the fullest! I’ll just leave y’all with this song that’s gotten me through tough times since 2013 – Battle Scars by Paradise Fears. Its lyrics are so powerful and remind me that I’ve made it through so many years of tough times and thought about giving up countless times, but I still pushed through and am strong enough to make it through whatever life throws at me in the next few months.

I’ll carry you home
No, you’re not alone
Keep marching on
This is worth fighting for
You know we’ve all got battle scars

You’ve had enough
But just don’t give up
Stick to your guns
You are worth fighting for
You know we’ve all got battle scars
Keep marching on

30 Jul edit: A journalist from The Homeground published this extremely well-researched article about the gruelling life of junior doctors in Singapore, presenting survey findings and interview excerpts reflecting the severe state of burnout and fatigue a vast majority of us experience on a day to day basis. Despite only having worked for 3 months, I’ve heard more than enough anecdotes from other doctors of varying levels of seniority to know that the ‘horror stories’ presented in the article are credible and accurate.

I’ll continue sharing my journey as a junior doctor and wherever life takes me after Housemanship year, so be sure to follow my Insta or Facebook page to stay up to date with my latest posts and life updates! Meanwhile, I’m off to enjoy my first day of annual leave in 3 months and enjoy a short but well-deserved break!


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2 responses to “the chronicles of a House Elf: my 3rd month as a House Officer in Singapore + counting small blessings”

  1. Hi Faith, thank you for sharing your past 3 months as being a House Officer. I don’t think it is easy and I also can’t fully understand what you are going through. But, I would just like to let you know that you have been an inspiration to me (am just a year 1 in JC and aspire to study medicine) and that I really admire your tenacity when faced with the struggles and demands of a HO. Jiayou and all the best for your remaining 9 months of housemanship. I look forward to reading your blog entries. Hang in there ok!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Isaac, and glad my blog’s been of use to you! After going through Housemanship, I would strongly urge all prospective med students to reconsider or explore diff life paths before committing to life as a doctor haha! All the best for JC and wtv life path you choose in future! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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