Crazy Socks for Docs

BY VIRGINIA SU

I stared intensely at the two options in front of me – I had a crucial decision to make. In my left hand I held my pair of simple black work socks that I wore to work every day. In my right hand, a pair of bright rainbow tie dye socks with little embroidered corgis. They were crisp and untouched ever since I bought them on a whim last year, but today was why I had kept them all this time. 

Friday 5th June, the first Friday of June. It’s Crazy Socks 4 Docs day! 

It all started when Dr Geoff Toogood wore mismatched coloured socks one day to work because his puppy had eaten all his other pairs. Hushed whispers that his mental health had deteriorated again went on behind closed doors. Yet not a single person asked him if he was ok or offered support despite believing him to be suffering from mental illness. To combat this stigma surrounding mental health in healthcare professionals and normalise support and conversations, he established the foundation “Crazy Socks 4 Docs” as a platform for awareness and discussion.

Friday 5th June, the first Friday of June. It’s Crazy Socks 4 Docs day! 

Doctors have a duty to care for their patients’ health both physically and mentally, but what happens when the doctor needs help and support? So many doctors experience burnout and stress overload from working overtime, compensating for staff shortages, sleep deprivation, imposter syndrome, emotional overflow from patients’ circumstances and the heavy responsibility for people’s lives. And yet, there’s constant pressure from the general public, fellow colleagues and high self-expectations for doctors to be perfect and to set aside their own issues for their job. 1 in 5 doctors in Australia have been diagnosed with depression, according to the 2019 National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students. In order for doctors to perform to the best of their capabilities, it is crucial that their health is looked after first, as supported by research showing strong correlation between the mental health of doctors and the effectiveness of health care and patient safety. 

Medical students of course are not exempt from the increased risk of mental illnesses. In 2013, Beyond Blue conducted the first nation-wide survey, reporting that 1 in 5 medical students had suicidal thoughts over the previous year with 40-50% experiencing emotional exhaustion with anxiety and depression symptoms. This is significantly higher than the Australian population, indicating that systemic change within medical training, such as regulations and policies aimed at reducing the risk, must be implemented. 

In this current world state of a pandemic, it is more crucial than ever to take these issues seriously and support the mental health of doctors. Medical professionals are the front-line soldiers in a war for global health and all eyes and even more pressure are on them to treat patients despite limited hospital resources. They are sacrificing sleep and their own health, with issues infiltrating their personal lives as many are forced to separate from high-risk family members as their work puts them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 themselves.  

In this current world state of a pandemic, it is more crucial than ever to take these issues seriously and support the mental health of doctors.

What can you do to get involved?

Crazy Socks 4 Docs Day is its flagship global awareness day where you are encouraged to wear crazy socks and strike up conversations about mental health in the medical work field. So pick some crazy socks, snap a pic and upload them onto Instagram with the #crazysocks4docs! And if you don’t have a pair of crazy socks, SockMe (https://sock-me.com.au/) is donating $2 to the foundation for every pair of socks purchased for the rest of June. You can also donate straight to the foundation through its website to further support its vision, but most of all, start the conversation the next time you see a colleague or doctor. 

Being lost in (pre-clinical) medicine.

BY ROBIN CHEAH

I’m one-and-a-half years into medical school and I can already say I’ve been lost multiple times.

‘Lost’ is, admittedly, a broad word. It’s a word with a myriad of possible meanings: emotionally, socially, physically, academically, acutely, constantly. But that’s what makes it so powerful. From making a wrong turn and ending up at anatomy 15 minutes late, to feeling utterly overwhelmed by content, to reflecting on what my goals even are – no word has encapsulated medical school quite as well as ‘lost’.

It’s easy to feel lost in the academic rat-race; barrages of content, an increasingly vast repertoire of examinations and symptoms and special tests and eponymously-named signs to not just remember but also understand. One moment, it seems achievable – “I think I remember all of this systems review” – and another moment a revision lecture or practice exam topples all of that down. It’s an erratic tide that rides highs and trembles at terrible lows – the short-term panic attack in a tute where you know utterly nothing –  with no ultimate direction. Sometimes the wave does vaguely point somewhere – “I need to know more about this” – and those moments of curiosity are refreshing when they arise.

From making a wrong turn and ending up at anatomy 15 minutes late, to feeling utterly overwhelmed by content, to reflecting on what my goals even are – no word has encapsulated medical school quite as well as ‘lost’

Adding to the confusion, there are those quasi-clichés such as “preclin doesn’t matter” or “It’s not on the exam” creeping into every second conversation. It instills a constant uncertainty: what truly matters and what doesn’t? Am I wasting my time on things that don’t matter? Am I just wasting my time studying if I’ll learn everything on the wards? Everything academic becomes ambiguous; every assignment is distilled into a weighing scale of effort with outcome. An essay might be pass-fail, but it’s also an opportunity to learn something important – but there are also exams nearing, that group assignment, the new thyroid examination to revise. Is all this theoretical content even important? Doing well on exams doesn’t really matter, right? The questions sometimes pile up into an incomprehensible heap regardless of where you think you are.

But being lost extends to more than just study – life is more than that. Acronyms for interest groups can fly over one’s head, leaving only the question of specialties (harkening back to the “What do you want to study in uni?” of VCE days). Even if there is no expectation to choose or commit or even consider, its ubiquity as a conversation topic makes it seem like there is sometimes. It can feel like a constant reminder that you don’t have goals, that you’re indecisive and God forbid, can coalesce into self-judgement.

It’s easy to judge yourself for being lost, for all its meanings. Being lost academically means you’re not smart enough or hard-working, or that you’re trying too hard or wasting effort. Being lost socially means you’re not good or nice enough to be liked. Even not having concrete goals feels like you’re indecisive. This is perhaps the point where that wave of ambiguity swells into a tsunami that drowns you in doubt. It is truly dangerous, especially when there’s that constant calling to keep revising, keep studying, keep up with the new content and lectures and go to class. It can be hard to stand firmly when you’re drowning like that.

In a way, the idea of feeling lost and unsure grows sobering; it’s somehow paradoxically reassuring to know that it’s the norm

In a way, the idea of feeling lost and unsure grows sobering; it’s somehow paradoxically reassuring to know that it’s the norm. Maybe what one needs is just to put their head down and do what they’re doing, but with conviction and confidence. Perhaps what we all need is to forgo the “It’s up to you” and make a decision ourselves as to where to go and what to do; resultantly, we’ll reap the rewards and pay the prices. Alternatively, you get acquainted with being lost, accept it and understand it’ll be there forever and as a result become numbed to the uneasiness it brings. But those are just two possibilities; the outcomes are infinitesimal, rightfully so for a term that has so many meanings.

Will that seemingly-omnipresent uncertainty ever fade away? Being lost in a hospital definitely sounds like it could happen. Being lost in the content of clinical years sounds more like an inevitability than anything. And it’s not even a medicine-specific struggle, either — there’s uncertainty in university life regardless of course.

Maybe being lost and uncertain isn’t an enemy but rather a friend we’ll get used to.

THE ‘X’ THAT MARKS A SOUL

BY SURINA BUTLER

The following creative piece was inspired by a patient interaction

Silence is punctured by the incessant cough, cough and the pinging of machines. I exhaust myself after another coughing fit, and then lie back, closing my eyes to shield them from the piercing lights above.

‘You have a very rare type of pneumonia,’ the doctor’s comments from yesterday echo in my mind. I can visualise him clearly in my memory, layers of material protecting his body. His voice is muffled by his face mask, and yet he still chooses to speak softly. ‘We call it an ‘AIDS-defining’ illness. The bug inside your lungs is a fungus that causes infection in people with a poor functioning immune system. The infection is called Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia, or PJP. The bug can only grow because the HIV has made your immune system weak.’ The last word branded me like a white-hot iron – weak. As if on cue, I coughed at that exact moment. My immune system was signalling to the fungus that I am weak – have your hostile takeover, I will not fight you.

In 1997 at 30 years old, I was diagnosed with HIV. I told very few people, keeping my secret close. It left a black mark on my soul – an ‘x’ for the virus to find and take up residence. It consumed a part of me.  

There was new treatment for HIV being introduced. They called it ‘HAART’ – highly active antiretroviral therapy. A friend told me to ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself, the stigma is dying down in Australia – get on with the treatment and live a normal life with the virus.’

He should have known better, because I wasn’t normal. Stigma can be external, but it can also be internal. Public disgrace was one issue, but I found that self-disgrace was always more overpowering. Self-harm was my disgusting delight. And here was my means to hurt myself over and over. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in my thirties. A ticket to ‘the rollercoaster’, as I liked to call it. And so began alternating periods of depression and mania. Pervasive self-hate was there throughout. I took my HIV medication more often during the manic periods, and far less during the depressed times. The end result was doctor after doctor and friends and family telling me that I needed to take my medication because I was making myself sick.

Stigma can be external, but it can also be internal. Public disgrace was one issue, but I found that self-disgrace was always more overpowering

When I started developing mild sicknesses I paradoxically felt better. ‘You deserve this’, I told myself. My mouth would be filled with putrid yeast, sitting in yet another psychiatry ward. Influenza season would take me as its victim every year. I remember with the slip of my hand while cutting open boxes, I created a wound that stubbornly refused to heal for weeks.

A psychiatrist once told me that every psychiatric disorder houses some form of deliberate self-harm. The patient with anorexia nervosa starves themself, the patient with obsessive compulsive disorder washes their hands raw, and I was no exception. I was the depressed and manic patient who let their HIV rage on unchecked when I was out of hospital.

Depending on who you asked, my self-disgust was rooted in many different spots. My father’s staunch Catholicism, and the doctrines he was taught (‘homosexuals are abominations’ – he would tell me), the alcoholic uncles who taunted me, the partners who hit me to assert their dominance, and so the list goes on. The end result was an internal tangle of gnarling branches, tearing me apart.

I found ways to evade the healthcare system. I stopped attending all appointments. When I moved to a distant suburb, I was out of reach of the system. I could feel the pain I needed to feel, and when it was too much, I would drink to forget what I had done to myself.

However, I had forgotten to account for my aunt. She visited me annually, or sometimes every other year. She managed to track me down and found me in a drunken stupor one afternoon. I can imagine the scene she would have walked in on. Around the room she would have seen remnants of a recent manic phase. Projects that were started and immediately abandoned strewn around the room – one eighth of a novel manuscript torn to pieces, empty bottles of pinot and a collection of photos folded and ripped littered across the floor. I have vague recollections of the next few days. Red and blue lights. The acrid scent of disinfectant. Blood flowing out of my veins and collected as evidence. Evidence of my many failures. Stethoscopes firmly placed on my chest and back. The doctors told me about my pneumonia, and diagnosed me with ‘AIDS’. I internally congratulated myself. Officially inducted into the club.

The psychiatrist visited yesterday, or perhaps it was the day before. Time is passing confusingly. She told me I needed to engage with psychiatric help. She would find the right program for me.

‘Do you know where the word stigma originates from?’

‘It’s a Latin word to describe marking the skin or body with a hot iron,’

She said, ‘the stigma surrounding HIV is lessening, and you need to engage with help’.

‘Doctor, do you know where the word stigma originates from?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she sighed.

‘It’s a Latin word to describe marking the skin or body with a hot iron,’ I paused, ‘maybe the world is moving on. Maybe they now say that people with HIV can lead a normal life. But the stigma inside of me never lessened. I branded myself with a hot iron, and now this is my cross to bear.’

A distant beep in the hospital brings me back to the present. I exhale and the burning slices through my chest. Then silence, punctured by a cough, cough and the pinging of machines.