One night in July—the night before her first day of work—a new doctor picked at a container of sushi in her apartment on a sleepy street in Brooklyn. She tried to swallow a few bites as she chatted on the phone with her best friend from medical school, who was also marking the eve of his first day as a working physician. “Break a leg,” she said. “But not really.”
There wasn’t any street noise to keep her up as she tried to go to sleep early for her 5:00 a.m. start—but even in the silence, heavy with midsummer humidity, she couldn’t drift off. For two months, since she’d graduated medical school, her body had registered her mounting stress leading up to her first day in the hospital. She was plagued by insomnia. Food made her nauseated, except plain donuts, which she ordered twice a day from the diner at the end of her block. She’d eat them while studying diagnoses and procedures that she’d learned in school and long since forgotten, crumbs piling up in the crease of her textbook. In the months between graduating and starting work, she lost more than 15 pounds.
Her first week, she worked more than 80 hours on a general-surgery rotation, charting for her attending physician, checking patients’ vital signs, and trying to restart exhausted hearts long after her shifts ended. “There’s no way to get all of our work done in 80 hours,” she says. “Our supervisors can’t make the work go away.” When her pager beeped with a reminder to clock out for the day, she ignored it, she says, while the more senior physicians looked the other way. Like many of her fellow residents, she went entire days without eating. She was so drained that she was halfway out the door one day before remembering that she’d left an IV in a patient’s arm.