COVID-19: A Great Opportunity to Improve Our Surgical Residency Training!

by Elise Lupon, MD
Plastic Surgery Resident in Toulouse
Research Fellow at Vascularized Composite Allotransplantation Laboratory, Massachusetts General Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Children

I can already see the suspicious looks on some readers’ faces when reading this title. How can anyone actually pretend that COVID is an opportunity? This is scandalous!

Actually, no. It is commonly known that when in a crisis, some people lose a lot, while others gain. This has less to do with the fact that the situation is disastrous or sad, than with the fact that you actually still have the power to choose how you respond. If you have read this far, you probably belong to the winners in this crisis!

The right question to ask ourselves now is: how do we want things to look for us at the end of this period of restriction?

I remember what happened for me when the announcement of this big life changing situation was made.

Like any good surgical resident, I was accustomed to working 100 hours a week, juggling too many different projects on the go, with little time left for myself. Then, suddenly, I saw my whole schedule collapse. Goodbye to the presentations I had been rehearsing over and over, goodbye to the microsurgery lab where I had planned to test a new coupler device, and last but not least, goodbye to my little escape to the Bahamas that I had been waiting for, for ages.

I also remember what actually happened after just one week of this new life situation.

I would not bother getting dressed properly anymore, nor would I be bothered by staying home all day long, doing nothing. I would eventually spend my entire day snacking, being distracted by social media stupidity, and spending hours calling relatives complaining to each other about all the events that had been cancelled. Fortunately, I realized very quickly that I was not alone and that most of my surgical colleagues were suffering from this same amotivational syndrome.

But probably the worst thing that we may face as surgical residents is the fact that we feel powerless and of no use in this sanitary war. Especially compared to some of our other colleagues who are like soldiers, fighting in the tough spot. In fact, we all have a family member who has already asked this simple question and triggered our feeling of inefficiency: “As a doctor, is it not too hard to work on the front line?”

There comes the moment when you do not want to break the myth to Auntie Grizelda of your being the saviour of the emergency room but still have to admit to yourself that you are not of any considerable help out there.

All in all, the fact is we may not be able to help much in managing this crisis, but (and here we go) we can, at least, help ourselves, instead of cultivating our feeling of impotence.

How is it possible that we are now procrastinating so much when a few weeks ago we were dreaming of having more time to do this or that?

The answer is simple: we don’t have enough pressure anymore. So the solution is just as simple: let’s put the pressure back on and get busy again.

For example, let’s spontaneously commit to new tasks, let’s even set deadlines for ourselves, pre-empting our attending surgeon. If the majority of us feel powerless in this current situation, we at least have control over how we design our day.

In a few months, when we look back, what are we going to say? There are basically two scenarios:

First scenario: We tell ourselves we have not done much for three or four months. We got comfortable, we got carried away in this vicious circle of life in slow motion, but hey: “it’s not our fault, it was COVID too…”

Second scenario: We tell ourselves that we moved forward a little bit every day, the best we could. We tried to find all the resources we could to stay busy and focused, and we did not give up, even if it was hard. And at the end, we might even be able to say that if this situation, although tragic, had not happened, we might never have been able to achieve some of those self-set goals.

Personally, the fear of ending up in the number one scenario in a few months’ time is enough to motivate me to move forward now, at least a little bit.

After one month of confined retreat and with help and feedback from some of my colleagues, we came up with a couple of tips and tricks that have worked for us. We set a couple of personal goals, got rid of a couple of bad habits that emerged so quickly and made up some daily healthy rituals in order to finally write our own successful COVID story.

  • Set your alarm clock every day (basic, but I’m sure some of us are already out of practice)

  • Dress every day (jogging pants and pajamas forbidden!)

  • Plan ahead for the next day and note 2 essential things you have to get done before going to bed (even if they are very small)

  • Write down everything you would like to have achieved at the end of the confinement on a piece of paper that is always in sight.

  • Learn how to properly use scientific research engines and referencing softwares (there are tons of well done free tutorials out there!)

  • Do not over-consume information about the crisis. If a big change happens, you will know soon enough one way or another. So it is useless to follow what is happening hour by hour. (It’s a waste of time and energy!)

  • Analyze your distraction factors and adapt to minimize them. Now is your chance to get rid of unwanted notifications on your mobile phone. Some people even put their smartphone for several hours in another room.

  • Avoid wasting time on social media or news feeds, especially if it is full of non- constructive information (your friend’s life in quarantine brings you nothing). Select the information and remember the mute function can be very useful.

  • Limit the time spent on the phone with your loved ones nurturing the complaining syndrome (no, that does not help you either)

  • Avoid over-consumption of TV series and movies (don’t even think about taking out a new subscription!).

  • Don’t buy junk food nor unnecessary snacks (if it is not normally in the fridge, no need to consume it!).

  • Drink water, lots of water!

Now take a moment. Let’s visualize us at the end of this crisis…. we have achieved so much, and we can be proud of ourselves!

And if we find ourselves making excuses, let us remember the words of Confucius: ” The man who says he can, and the man who says he can not… are both correct.”

Which one are you?


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