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Wretched work in a 'WAR ZONE' - Senior doctor warns that KPH colleagues could face PTSD

Published:Friday | July 14, 2017 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
A patient being taken into the accident and emergency unit at the Kingston Public Hospital last week.
Dr Orville Morgan
Dr Renee Armstrong
Dr Ayanna Ennis
One of the many cakes baked by Dr Ayanna Ennis when she wants to destress.
Another of the many cakes baked by Dr Ayanna Ennis when she wants to destress.

Concerned that his colleagues are overly stressed from working in a 'war zone' on a regular basis, senior medical official, Dr Orville Morgan, is calling for the rotation of doctors who have to deal with trauma to reduce the likelihood of them experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Morgan, who is a senior medical doctor at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital, said that although he is not on the front line anymore, he feels sorry for his colleagues who have to be dealing with as many as 20 gunshot victims in less than a week on occasions.

"We need to recognise that the level of trauma that these doctors are being exposed to - and the nurses - is akin to being in war because they are in a war zone," said Morgan.

"The long-term effect on their lives must pan out at some point in time. It is not a question of if it will. It is just that we may not be seeing it now because just like in a war, you fight the war, but when the war is over, what do you do?"

There is cause for Dr Morgan's concern, as a number of studies have shown PTSD among doctors who work in trauma units.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest itself in many different ways, from basic just carelessness and apathy to downright depression, or even as bad as what you would call psychotic type reaction," said Morgan.

"In fact, just listening to my colleagues here, I am not sure if some of them are not suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder," added Morgan, after doctors and nurses from the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) recounted some of their experiences while working at the hospital during a Gleaner Editors' Forum last Thursday at the downtown Kingston-based hospital.

"Truthfully, once you work in the emergency room, there is no way you can leave the same way you came in. You get a little hardened by what you see," admitted medical officer Dr Renee Armstrong.

"You essentially have to, in some respects, operate on autopilot; the patient comes in, this is what you are trained to do, you do it, because you see these things several times per shift, several times per week.

"If you are supposed to let every patient reach a certain point in your consciousness, in your spirit, then you would be a wreck, so in order to keep going and keep doing your job, it comes to a point where you can't think about it," she said.

For anaesthesiologist Dr Ayanna Ennis, baking is what she does when the pressure gets too much. She used to bake and give away her products, but these days, she sells them to supplement her income.

"Coming in the first year of medical school, you know that you are trained to save lives, you are trained to be professional, you are trained to internalise and not let the outside world see what you are feeling, and you are basically trained to be a machine," she said.

According to Morgan, a programmed approach is needed to assist doctors to deal with the stress.

"You don't wait until people show symptoms," he said.

Head of the Accident and Emergency unit at KPH, Dr Hugh Wong, said that while he has never referred anyone to a psychiatrist, he knows that there are staff members who see their chaplain or psychiatrist.

The reality, however, he noted, is that doctors are not trained how to register their emotions.

"It may be maladaptive, but it allows us to function," he admitted.

"I do agree that sometimes we don't recognise the way we are feeling, and perhaps we need to step outside ourselves and see whether we need that assistance," said Wong.