the chronicles of a House Elf: my 12th month as a House Officer in Singapore/becoming a Medical Officer + highlight reel of a chill HO year + what’s next?

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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!

When the clock struck 12 midnight on 26th April 2022, I transformed into a Medical Officer, much like how Cinderella had that magical glittery transformation courtesy of her Fairy Godmother….except that I was on call on 25th April (and working 30-odd hours continuously into the wee hours of 26th April), so nothing exciting really happened. Perhaps only my eyebags transformed and became even heavier.

Anyway, I can’t believe I’ve been employed (like an actual…adult??) & blogging about it for a whole year now. To start off my celebratory Oscar acceptance speech, I’d like to thank each and every one of you for following this series over the past 12 months, and special thanks to those of you who sent messages of encouragement during the tougher times, I appreciated them so much. :’)

I have plans for another series about life as a Medical Officer and can’t wait to tell all of you about my very first MO posting, but more on that at the end of this post! First things first, let me catch you up on the happenings of this past month, which included 1) catching COVID, 2) worrying about failing my posting, and 3) still having absolutely no idea what I’m doing with my life.

Disclaimer (because this girl wants to cover her ass): This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

the time I was thrown under a bus

Remember how in my post from last month about how bosses can make or break your experience at work, I spoke about being thrown under the bus? Just like in every movie, there’s always one last hurdle or crisis that the protagonist needs to overcome before achieving an extra-rewarding ending. Well, here’s that story.

Disclaimer, this did not happen when I was in an Orthopedics team, because I would never utter a bad word against Ortho (my 3 months with them was enjoyable & genuinely wholesome); it was a team in another surgical department that 1 Orthopedics HO is always ‘loaned out’ to as additional manpower.

But first, let’s set the stage. HOs (House Officers) are lowly forms of life which have to undergo 12x monthly evaluations, 3x workplace evaluations, 3x posting evaluations in order to pass Housemanship. Yes, we’re thinking the same thing, it’s too many damn evaluations!

Most people make it through 12 months with absolutely no issues, and I was well on track to making that happen, until my 10th month, when I was failed for a monthly evaluation because I had not phoned a senior doctor quickly enough to review a sick patient. The assessor chose to paint me in a bad light (despite my having explained the full circumstances), when in actual fact, I had literally just come back from MC for an appallingly bad bout of the stomach flu (and even had to shorten my MC despite still being unwell because of manpower issues at work).

What was a few clicks and sentences typed into an evaluation form for my assessor, became 2 months of stress/anxiety (wondering if I would fail my posting), administrative nightmares and sadness for me. I had to meet with senior doctors to explain the extenuating circumstances of that incident, and reviewed by a committee as a routine administrative procedure, so I was kept on tenterhooks for 2 months while awaiting the verdict.

(as mentioned earlier, that particular evaluation was not done by a doctor from the Ortho department, as I had been ‘loaned out’ by Ortho to another surgical specialty for that fateful month, and it was someone from that other department who had failed me. I just want to make it clear, cos I genuinely appreciate and love my Ortho dept!!)

When meeting with my Ortho senior doctors, they listened to my side of the story and showed kindness & empathy, offering me nothing but reassurance and support. They told me everything was going to be okay and that it had been an unfortunate misunderstanding; I felt safe. After nearly 2 months of waiting anxiously, I was vindicated, and life went on. My most important takeaway from that ordeal was that there’s always two sides to every story, and showing a little sympathy goes a long way. For goodness sake, we’re all doctors just trying our best for our patients, but we’re human and fall sick sometimes too.

This is a #getitoffmychest kind of story, because if it happened to me, I’m sure it’s happened to others as well (in different hospitals/departments), so it’s a disservice if I stay silent about it. Most senior doctors do make an effort to protect and look out for their juniors, so my story is an exception not the rule; I was just unlucky to have been evaluated in a way that was meant to throw me under a bus.

Moving onto happier things….

Housemanship highlight reel

To accompany this highlight reel, this is a playlist containing the songs I played on repeat during HOship. These were the songs that kept me sane at 2am on call, or felt like a warm hug on a bad day. Hope you’ll love them as much as I do~

So…some people chose postings based on perceived learning value, and some chose places with higher patient volumes for better training, but not me. My main objective during Housemanship was just to get by at work and most importantly, maintain a life outside of work, because that’s far more valuable to me than rigorous training or the thrill of a steep learning curve. I’ll leave that to the residency gunners (specialty training wannabes) and to those who genuinely enjoy staying at work even after the sun sets; I prefer catching my sunsets at the beach.

I had a much better year than many others because I did my research prior to picking HO postings (near the tail end of M5) and deliberately chose places that were known for good work-life balance, not too many calls, and reasonable working hours. And thankfully, that plan worked.

Here’s a highlight reel of the 3 x 4-month rotations I went through this year:

My first posting was spent in NUH O&G (★★★☆☆)

  • My experience in that department was a mixed bag; the day-to-day work was chill and not the most challenging, and there were some weekends when we didn’t have to come into work at all (which is extremely rare for HOs).
  • On the flip side, it was political and run like a well-oiled, very micromanaged production line. We were (un)fortunately not given much opportunities for hands-on work…in stark comparison to KKH O&G where HOs assist with episiotomies and deliveries.
  • And on call, we slept on a sofa bed in the workroom attached to the ward, with ward staff barging in at 2am asking us to order medications, so that was fun (please note the sarcasm).
  • There was also glorification of overwork and the perpetuation of the notion that ‘staying back later = being more passionate’, but that’s a disturbingly common theme in many other departments/hospitals as well, so it wasn’t unique to this department.

My second posting was KTPH IM/Gen Med (★★★)

  • Welcome to the land of beautiful architecture, extensive greenery & ensuite call rooms (an absolute rarity & dare I say, luxury?). Almost everything about that workplace felt like home.
  • Most senior doctors were approachable & friendly, my colleagues were mostly like-minded chill people, and there was a concerted effort to maintain good work-life balance, with people regularly leaving work on time.
  • In other more academic hospitals, there’s too many compulsory teaching sessions, creating stress when we had to divide our attention between our hectic ward work and listening to the teachings on Zoom. Or their daily ward rounds feel like exams, with the big bosses drilling overworked junior doctors with 101 academic questions. But it wasn’t like that in KTPH; learning didn’t feel like a chore and we were never made to feel dumb/bad if we didn’t know something. It was just the right amount of teaching and nurturing.
  • I was fortunate enough to spend a full 4 months in Tower A, where the air-conditioned wards and lower patient loads were, so my experience was definitely a lot more comfortable than most people’s.
  • Bonus points for the variety of affordable food choices in and around the hospital. We had time for ACTUAL LUNCH BREAKS (instead of the usual rushed 20-minute lunches), and had time to stop and smell the flowers (while strolling past the Yishun Pond on the way to Northpoint).

My final posting was TTSH Ortho. (★★★ – actually 4.5 stars but there’s no half)

  • Maybe I’m biased but this was the posting I had been looking forward to since the start of the year. I enjoy the nature of Ortho patients and the day-to-day ward work, and had heard how nice & friendly the department was, which was why I chose it (my priorities are clearly right).
  • Each month, we were rotated through a different subspecialty – I had stints in Trauma, Foot & Ankle, and Sports Medicine. I also had the unique experience of spending a month in Hand Surgery (not actually part of Ortho, but 1 HO is always loaned out to them). There were 3 other teams that I didn’t have a chance to be rotated through – Spine, Tumour & Adult Reconstruction.
  • I saw an amazing breadth of patients and had lots of fun photographing, cleaning & dressing wounds (it’s not as gnarly as it sounds, it’s more like arts & crafts with the added element of helping people) or adjusting external fixators. As someone who enjoys working with my hands but not actually going into an Operating Theatre, the ward work in Ortho was really enjoyable, interspersed with loads of banter & jokes within the team, and conducted at an appropriate pace (not like those painfully long 3h Gen Med ward rounds).
  • The calls were fairly hectic, often involving my team running around in the Emergency Department seeing patients at all hours of the da/night/whatever-hour-it-is, but they were still fairly enjoyable and more exciting than calls in my other 2 postings. I reckon I’m just biased.
  • The work-life balance here was outstanding. Every team made a concerted effort to ensure HOs had a minimum of 1 day off per week, and going home at 5pm on the dot was a common occurrence for most of us. Some of my coHOs would definitely beg to differ, as they had a more tiring & hectic experience. Disclaimer: your quality of life in surgical postings honestly depends on your ‘luck’. My luck was very good, with the patient list shrinking the moment I joined any team & my patients being very medically stable, so I almost never had long days. (However, I’ve since heard that the patient load is steadily increasing back to pre-pandemic levels and the calls are getting more hectic, but thankfully I’m no longer there)
  • Workplace culture can make coming into work a joy instead of a chore, and this place was the epitome of that.

I was very fortunate to have gotten 2 out of 3 of the postings I ranked as my top choices (KTPH IM & TTSH Ortho), and for the only posting I didn’t select – NUH O&G (instead of KKH Paeds which I had initially wanted), it turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise. Turns out that HOs in KKH Paeds do 7 calls a month, a fact I didn’t know when I selected it, and have comparatively poor manpower.

So I guess everything did work out in the end. 🥳

how to work 70+ hours instead of 90+ hours per week

If leaving work at 5pm is a metric of a House Officer’s quality of life, I had a very good run indeed. At the risk of being murdered by pitchfork-wielding friends, the latest I ever left work during Housemanship was 6.45pm (which happened just once in my first posting).

And I can remember the number of times I left work after 5pm, it numbers around 30 – mostly during my first posting, very rarely during my second posting (when we had 4.30pm Gen Med admissions), and just twice in my final posting.

Getting my ‘1 in 7’ (1 day off work every week) was no issue at all, because I picked postings known for relatively good manpower. I only ever had 1 streak of working 19 days straight without a day off, back in my first posting but I still had 4 days off on average every month (4 days off out of 30 still sounds like overwork though, if I’m being entirely honest).

On the other hand, many of my friends in departments with fewer House Officers have worked for 14-28 days straight without a single day off, which is honestly inhumane, unacceptable and dangerous.

Some were even made to clear their Annual Leave by applying for days off on Saturdays/Sundays, which is ridiculous and should surely be a HR violation???

I know it may seem shameless to place such a heavy emphasis on working as short hours as possible, but when we’re working 70-100 hours a week, every hours less spent at work makes a huge difference. To put things in perspective, a relatively chill person like me was still working nearly double of a normal person pulling a 40h work week – I worked an average of 70+ hours a week for this whole year, it’s just that my friends were working 90-100+ hours a week instead.

Maybe I should write a guide on picking the best HO year postings, to save y’all the pain of tortuous working hours and burnout (but it would have to password protected cos we can’t have the general public seeing all our backroom secrets).

catching COVID/a well-deserved break

Speaking from personal experience, having caught both in the past, it’s far better to catch COVID than feelings. And it was finally my turn to catch the ‘Rona in mid-April.

I had been feeling unusually tired at work that afternoon, and when I reached home that evening with the sniffles, I tested myself. That magical second line showed up on the ART kit in record time, and it was awfully dark, which probably meant I had a really high viral load.

I let out a small whoop of joy, and in true Gen Z fashion, posted about it on Insta and texted my work team to tell them I would be disappearing off the face of the earth for at least 3 days (or until my ART turned negative). You might be asking, who would be happy about catching COVID? To that, I raise you a chronically tired House Officer.

I had a mild runny nose and gnarly sore throat for days, and was adequately doped up on medications while recuperating at home. I whiled the days away watching K-dramas, Wes Anderson films and Marvel movies, although the novelty was starting to wear off by Day 4 and I found myself actually missing work & feeling bad that my team had to cope with 1 man down. After 7 days, I finally turned COVID negative and managed to venture back into the outside world.

I’m still left with some residual brain fog, which is apparently a real side effect of COVID. So the next time I forget anything or say something dumb, I’ll blame it on COVID, how about that? 😛

final thoughts

Looking back, it’s a miracle I made it this far. It takes a village to get one person through Housemanship. I couldn’t have done any of it without God, my extremely supportive parents, and best friends. Special shout out to L & TL, the 2 people who put up with the bulk of my existential rants this year.

From damn-near quitting on multiple occasions in the first half of HO year, and needing a therapist because of how burnt-out & shitty I felt in my first posting, to being able to walk the rest of the journey in a relatively good state of mind and restore some work-life balance; I’ve grown more than I could ever have imagined and learnt that I’m tougher than I believed I was.

(I also stopped therapy after 3 sessions cos it was too expensive and I felt 100x better after finishing that first posting LOL)

I wouldn’t say that I recommend this experience as a character building bootcamp, even though it certainly was for me, and I’m honestly just more relieved than anything that this year is finally over. It felt like a foggy nightmare interspersed with many pockets of happiness, and now I’m finally walking out of it relatively unscathed.

And with that, we’ve come to the end of the Chronicles of a House Elf. I would like to sincerely thank each and every one of you for following me on this journey, and y’all inspire me to keep writing.

what’s next?

A new series, that’s what’s next! Surely y’all didn’t think I would be abandoning you and disappearing into the void of Medical Officer life silently, right?

I’ll be starting my very first Medical Officer (MO) posting in early May, in a unique specialty – Occupational & Environmental Medicine, and I could not be more excited! It’s rather obscure, so I was met with countless confused looks when I told my friends/colleagues about my upcoming posting.

Truth be told, I wasn’t too sure of the job-scope either when I selected it as my first choice for the interim MO posting, but alas, miracles happen and I now have the opportunity to try it out!

If you’re still interested in following my journey into the vast wilderness of Medical Officer (MO) life or whichever ‘greener pastures’ I decide to wander off to, keep an eye out for next month’s blog post!

This month’s song rec is a rock song with uplifting lyrics, for whoever needs a reminder that things will get better.

Bad Life by Sigrid & Bring Me The Horizon

When the world is on your shoulders
And the weight of your own heart is too much to bear
Well I know that you’re afraid
Things will always be this way
But it’s just a bad day
Not a bad life
And I know it feels so hopeless
And I know how close you are to the edge right now
So I wrote this song to say
Things won’t always be this way no
It’s just a bad day
Not a bad life

I’ll continue sharing my journey as a Medical Officer and wherever the road ahead takes me, so be sure to follow my Insta or Facebook page to stay up to date with my latest posts and life updates!


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5 responses to “the chronicles of a House Elf: my 12th month as a House Officer in Singapore/becoming a Medical Officer + highlight reel of a chill HO year + what’s next?”

  1. Congrats Faith on getting through the very tough 12 months of HOShip!!! Im a junior who has been following your blog for the last 5+ years HAHA and will definitely continue to follow!! All the best for MOShip (and hope to bump into you in the wards one day :D)


    1. Thanks for coming along on this wild journey for so many years J! And yes hehe hope to see you around some day, be sure to say hi!! 😊😊


  2. It has been nice following your journey over the past year! Congrats and all the best as you become a MO!

    Occupational medicine sure sounds interesting and unique 🙂


    1. Thanks for always faithfully ‘liking’ my posts and cheering me on!! It really keeps me going 🙂

      And yes I’m super excited about trying that specialty out! We’ll see how it goes~

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha your blog posts are great to read! Jiayous! 🙂


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