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“Am I Alright?” – Why asking yourself if you are ok matters deeply

Six months ago, completely out of the blue, my 4 year old son had a respiratory arrest at home and I had to resuscitate him on our living room carpet with my wife, Kerri, watching. The 7 minutes or so that I was performing mouth-to-mouth and cardiac compressions on my son, Elias, was the most surreal, frightening and difficult experience of my life. It looked like he was dying.

The paramedics arrived and by around 10 minutes following his collapse, Elias’s pulse was present and he was starting to breathe again. My memories of being in the ambulance and arriving into the resuscitation area of the children’s emergency department where I work are a bit of a blur. I remember seeing a big team of familiar people with concerned faces. I remember suddenly feeling drained and tearful and quiet and as if things were moving in slow motion. I remember the sound of Kerri crying.

Thankfully, Elias was fine and after 3 days in hospital and many investigations, he was discharged. We don’t know why it happened. He now has an implantable cardiac monitor and we are hopeful that, whatever it was, will never happen again. He is a delightful, bright, happy little boy who just started school this week. It took Kerri and I some time to work through what had happened, and it would be fair to say that something like that can’t ever fully leave you.

In the books and blogs and writings on wellbeing and resilience for doctors and healthcare staff, the acknowledgement of the ‘human condition’ in what we do has been particularly poignant for me of late. Books like ‘Also Human’ (Caroline Elton) and ‘This is Going to Hurt’ (Adam Kay) resonate with us because they acknowledge the fact that we are not machines and that no amount of professionalism can extend to the suppression of how we feel and the personal life experiences that we carry with us. These cannot be totally divorced from our work. In the weeks that followed what happened to Elias, the care we provided for first child I saw in ‘Resus’ as the Consultant in charge was excellent and we were all professional. But I would be lying to say that it didn’t make me think of my boy or that it didn’t evoke a mixture of emotions and memories.

Colleagues have asked me often since those events in my living room “Are you ok?” My answer has mostly been “I think so.” The more important question for me I think has been “Am I ok?” An acknowledgement that I need to take the time and create the space to ask myself how I feel. In addition to recognise that the answer to “Am I ok?” can change. You don’t have to commit to being alright, as if in some way that means that it’s all ‘done and dusted.’

In medicine we frequently work in stressful and difficult conditions and, in my view, it is not just naïve, but also unhealthy, to try to separate these completely from how we feel about the other things going on in our lives, whether that’s other patients or experiences in work or adversity or problems in our personal lives. I think we could all do with asking ourselves “Am I ok?” more often, and if the answer is “no” then we need to talk to family, friends or colleagues about it. It is also worth remembering that this can equally extend to bringing joy and laughter and positivity to work when we are feeling great. As medical staff, we are ‘also human’ and this needs to be properly recognised, not just by those arounds us, but by ourselves.

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