03 May 2010

When personal overlaps with professional

I suppose being in practice in the Foreign Service is akin to working in a small town—a very small town. While a few embassy populations are quite large, with more than a thousand staff members and families, most are well below the 500 mark. I am responsible for the occupational health needs of fewer than 200 people in Prague, plus another hundred local staff.

This means my patients are also my colleagues and friends. It is not uncommon for me to have lunch or dinner with someone I treat in the clinic the same week. Rarely are we in a situation where we provide care for people we don’t see frequently outside of the health unit, even if it is just passing in a hallway.

I have always had mixed feelings about this unusual practice environment, as having such a close relationship with one’s patients has both advantages and disadvantages. Under this system, my feeling of responsibility for a patient’s medical outcome is both professional and personal. My medical colleagues and I have to maintain clinical objectivity at the same time we have a very special interest in the people we are treating.

Recently, one of my patients has been very ill and has required advanced medical care within the Czech health system. I am thankful there is such competent care available in Prague, but the length and severity of the illness has cost me many tossing-and-turning nights. I worry and wonder if all the people making decisions in this case—myself included—are making the right decisions. From the beginning, there has been a high chance of complications, and I am acutely aware that, if things don’t go well, my embassy colleagues might look at me with a critical eye. But that isn’t the cause of my fidgety sleep. I have tremendous regard and respect for my patient, and it is that personal connection that causes the angst!


At my first post—Accra, Ghana—I was forced to hospitalize a septic 3-year old. The parents were on their initial overseas assignment and had been in country for exactly one month. The mom was a lovely young lady who stood about 5 foot 2. After admitting the baby to the hospital and initiating IV infusion of the drugs that were going to save her, the mom turned to me, literally grabbed me by the shirt and pulled my face down to hers. “Don’t let my baby die!” she cried.

That was the first time I felt the full force of the responsibility this practice can bring. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the last time but, in that case, the child did well and left the hospital in less than a week, her mother having never left her side.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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