Friday, 14 January 2011

OOH you are awful...

Please excuse the terrible pun of a title, but...well, they're all like that, and if you're not used to them by now then I'm sorry to tell you that they are unlikely to get any better from here on in.

Some of you may be thinking 'Pun? What pun?' Well, sit still and I'll explain it to you. Still, I said. Don't fidget.

OOH is not a further sign of my rapid descent into campness (campdom? campicity?) but rather an acronym for the dread part of the job known as Out Of Hours. AKA On Call, AKA Duties, AKA stupid bastarding night work.

I am aware that the veterinary profession is not the only job blessed/blighted by out of hours work, but I'm afraid I can't speak for any other profession as I haven't worked in them, but this part of the job, more than any other, really puts the H,A,T and E in my love/hate relationship with my work. Between myself and my wife it has been responsible for one nervous breakdown, several tantrums, two resignations, a near-divorce and a broken remote control (which cost £20 to replace. Scandalous!)

(As to which of us had the nervous breakdown, well, I'll leave that hanging as an intriguing mystery. But ask yourself - which one of us has to write an introspective blog just to cope with the pressures of work, and which one of us just gets on with the job without moaning? (Mind you, it was me who had to pay for the bloody remote control, so we'll call it even))

I am, I like to think, generally cheerful and happy-go-lucky, a fairly relaxed kind of chap (I like to think that. I'm not, but for the purposes of this blog, lets go with it). On call, it's a different story. I turn into a strange Smeagol-esque creature, nervous of human contact, unloved and unlovely. All I want to do, when I'm on call, is sit in a darkened room next to the phone, and wait for it to ring. I can't stand to start doing anything that I couldn't drop at a moment's notice - not really a state of mind conducive to a good night's sleep.

Even more Gollum-like is my relationship with my phone (don't get me wrong, I love my iPhone with a passion that probably should be outlawed in decent, God-fearing countries, but that's because of all the other cool things it does, not because it's a phone. Take away the talky bit and I'd still be very happy with it. I suppose that's why they made an iPod touch, but you really don't want me to digress along these lines or we'll be here all day...) - I loathe loathe loathe talking on the phone even at the best of times. I'm with Stephen Fry on this one (yes, I mentioned Stephen Fry again. No apologies. He's my generation's Yoda. Apart from, y'know, Yoda) - how many other things do you have that will suddenly start shouting at you 'Talk to me! Talk to me! Talk to me!' and then get grumpy if you don't? I suspect I'm not alone in this sentiment, but my wife and mother-in-law seem to consider it a mortal sin if I don't immediately spring to attention and run for the phone. Why? That's what answerphones are for.

It's fair to say that my feelings about phones are mixed, at best. When I'm on call, my phone becomes this weird talisman. Much like our poor hobbits with the One Ring, I hate it, but am unable to part with it, and am constantly getting it out to check that it's working, that there's enough battery, that there's a signal, etc. If only it made me invisible, the analogy would be perfect (there's a suggestion for an iPhone app! I'd probably buy that one). I spend a lot of time on call sitting in my car, looking at my phone and occasionally muttering 'Gollum' to myself.

Why? What it is about OOH work that brings out the ringwraith in me?

It's hard to describe quite what's so horrible about being 'on call', so much so that it inspires in me, even now that I do less of it, a kind of deep, black terror. It's not the busyness - to be honest, I almost always work harder on an average 'normal' day than a day or night on call, and I don't feel the same dread of it (though tell me that on a Monday morning and you may get a different response. Like a punch in the nose).

I think it's a combination of a few things. First is the loneliness. When you're on call, it's you against the world. It's your responsibility, and anything that goes wrong is likely to be your fault. This is especially true of home or farm visits. First of all you've got to find the place - a job in itself before the days of SatNavs, and even then these won't help you too much if you're trying to find a remote paddock or cottage (I'm surprised I haven't heard of some poor young vet driving off a cliff in the middle of the night desperately looking for a farm. I did once nearly drive into the sea in Cornwall, but as that was whilst I was heading for a job interview, not an emergency call, so I don't think that counts. (Yes, somehow I got the job).

You're on someone else's territory, often dealing with a distressed owner and a distressed animal, your heart is racing and you're desperately trying to remember your notes from University. To me, as a new graduate, driving to a call at two in the morning, I felt like the loneliest person in the world (except, maybe, for that guy in the Omega man).

I'm lucky enough to have only ever worked in jobs where someone else took the calls, and then passed them on to me as required. My wife has only worked in jobs where she had the calls from the practice directly forwarded to her phone, so as well as being very annoying (Oh, you're not open at midnight? Well, can I make an appointment for tomorrow?) it adds to the feeling of isolation (and is really not good for the health of any remote controls within easy reach).

Aside from the crushing despair of solitude (I'm not laying this on too thick, am I? No? Good) there's the unpredictability. Always a factor as a vet - you never quite know what you're going to be faced, or when something is going to come through the door that derails your whole day) this effect is compounded out of hours, when there is not routine at all and the whole day is essentially unplanned. I think this part of the job is much tougher on new graduates, for whom every call is a new, unexpected scenario. I'm now old enough and long enough to have seen pretty much everything before (boy, am I going to regret writing that when my next night on call brings me a kangaroo with a lacerated penis) but I still find the fact that either I might make it through a full night's sleep, or I might have the most horrendous evening of my entire life difficult to deal with mentally.

This is especially hard when you are getting one call after another - before you've had a chance to deal with the first one. Nothing to me is more stressful than having emergencies stack up quicker than you can deal with them. The dangerous point to get to is the mental state of thinking 'If that phone rings one more time then my brains will explode!' because, Sod's law being the evil little git that it is, the phone always rings thirty seconds after that thought has passed through your brain.

Early in my career, I was called by the police to attend a horse lorry that had crashed, and fallen into a ditch, complete with horse. The fire brigade has requested the presence of a veterinary surgeon, and I drew the short straw. This call, as I remember, came whilst I was either stitching up a dog, or removing puppies from it. Something surgical, anyway. The terror I experienced upon receiving that call is like nothing I had ever felt before. Although I'm sure it can't compete with the feelings of the soldiers about to go over the top on the Somme, and although the actual call itself turned out to be fine (the horse just needed to be sedated to get it out of the trailer, plus there was a really cool bit where I was waved through a line of flashing police cars and ambulances like some sort of secret agent) an echo of that bowel-destroying fear has stayed with me every night on call I have ever done since.

The third problem with out of hours work is that it's on top of the normal job - you're expected to work a full day, work a night on call, then full day the following day as well. Same for weekends - full day Friday, work 48 hours over the weekend, then back to work Monday morning. Apparently, having a professional job means that things like the working time directive don't apply to vets. Here, at least, I feel I can help out the new graduates. When I was a lad, my rota was such that I worked thirteen days in a row, including four nights on call, for the prize of one day off (during which you slept). Nowadays, we get one day off a week, plus I've fought for giving the new graduates a half-day off in lieu of a night on call (which makes me sound like some Lord-Shaftesbury like crusader, which I'm not, I just didn't want to be one of those vets who said 'Well, I had it tough, so you can too.' Now I'm one of those vets who mutters 'Well, I had it worse, and I didn't bloody complain' whenever the young 'uns complain about anything at all)

It may be that it's just me; that my temperament is not best-suited for out of hours work - I know some vets who are more relaxed, and who will even (gasp!) go out for a meal, or down the pub with friends (not drinking, of course). I'm wound more tightly than a spring caught on a helicopter blade when I'm on call, and I suspect I would probably just shatter if I dared to venture into a public place. Still, I think a lot of vets who have spent much time working out of hours will find at least something to sympathise with in the above.

Well, that's probably enough soul-baring for this month. Please comment if this whole blog has made you rage at my self-indulgent weediness. Just don't do it when I'm on call, I don't think I could cope with it.

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