Michael Chaikof is a fifth-year OB/GYN resident at the University of Toronto.
“You are in month two of a sixty-month residency! You are not supposed to know everything yet!”
I still remember exactly where I was sitting at the labour and delivery nursing desk when a wise attending said this to me. I was a new intern, beating myself up after an incorrect cervical dilation check. These words gave me the impetus to learn from my mistake, dust myself off, and keep going. As a natural-born perfectionist (like so many of my colleagues in residency), I have often returned to this perspective over the course of my training. Had trouble finding the ureter in the OR? You are only in month twenty-one!
The arrival (or maybe, crash-landing is more appropriate) of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost everything in our world. I am now in month fifty eight of a sixty-month residency program. I am about to be certified as a fully-fledged obstetrician/gynecologist, and I finally feel as though I have the skill-set to match. And yet, everything feels new again. While the essence of the labour ward has remained the same – we still look after patients before, during and after birth – our day-to-day lives have changed dramatically. Simply moving a patient from the triage area to the operating room for a scheduled cesarean section is now a complicated affair. Safely completing that caesarean section in full PPE is an even bigger challenge. And so, once again, I find myself getting frustrated at finding things difficult – things at which I’d become slick and efficient over five years.
Which is why, this week, I found myself returning to my mantra. “You are only in month two of this pandemic. You are not supposed to know how to do everything yet.” The only difference is that this time around, we are all in month two.
None of us has practiced medicine in a pandemic of this scale. We haven’t been or taught medical learners during a time of extreme social distancing. Therefore, none of us should be expected to perform at our usual level of proficiency and we should acknowledge that we are at the very beginning of a bumpy, winding path up a learning curve of unknown length.
Which means we need to treat our colleagues and ourselves with the patience we show our most junior learners, and celebrate small milestones in our growth. The whole team was able to doff their PPE without any breeches in sterile technique? Celebrate that. They were able to do the same thing two minutes faster for the next case? Yet another achievement for us as individuals and as a team.
We are also finding new ways to communicate with one another. We have added daily socially-distant huddles to ensure that all members of the care team feel safe and up to date on protocols. We are learning how to communicate empathy and caring to our patients while wearing masks and face shields. We can even conduct teaching rounds and departmental meetings entirely online. These too are skills that take practice to master, yet our resiliency, drive and international collaboration have allowed us to do this with unparalleled speed. We can celebrate that.
Newly learned lessons will have an indelible impact on our practices as clinicians, educators and leaders. These lessons in flexibility, compassion, and collaboration will outlive COVID-19.
On our journey to the end of this pandemic, even the most experienced among us will be reminded what it is like to be new at something. So be kind to yourself and remember: “It is only month two! You have learned so much already…”