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The straw that broke the camel’s back

The straw that broke the camel’s back

On the theme ‘A case I’ll never forget’, Dr Gyda Meeten writes about the consultation that made her take a step back from work to recover from burnout

Even though it’s a year ago now, it’s hard to forget the case in which I almost punched an elderly gentleman in the face.

It was a week or so after I’d hurled a robin’s-egg-blue mug across the room from my desk, watching it shatter and send cold coffee dregs in a brown arc across the wall.

It was a month or so after I’d typed the email to my partners, which explained the depth of burnout I was experiencing and my desperate need to stop. It still sat in my draft folder.

It was 19 years since I’d become a GP, and two years since the pandemic compounded the usual pressures of underfunding and overworking.

And now, I was listening to him list endless unfixable problems in a quavering voice. His tablets were all wrong at the chemist, the carers didn’t spend long enough with him, his knees were sore all the time, and the Daily Mail article he was clutching told him it was his statin.

My jaw clenched as he talked, frustration and anger rising. I was trapped, overwhelmed by his expectations and my inability to meet them. I had nothing left to give. I needed to get him out of my room.

I bustled him into the waiting area, muttering promises to call him later in the week. And as I sank back into my wheelie chair, the tears started and wouldn’t stop. Through them, I screen messaged my colleague to say I couldn’t do it any more and needed to go home. I finally pressed send on the draft email to the rest of the partners and the manager, grabbed my coat and left the building.

I was hardly able to see the road home through my tears. I thought I would take a day or two off and be back to normal, but in the end it was six months before I made it back to the office.

For the first few weeks, I sat on the sofa. I avoided the phone and the front door, feeling I’d achieved something if I made it to the shower before the kids came home from school.

Everything was too much, not least the sense that I was letting my team down as they scrambled for locum cover and rearranged holidays. Who was I if I wasn’t a GP Partner? What if I never made it back?

Spring turned to summer and I moved to the garden, sitting under the silver birch, watching the birds squabble over the feeders.

I saw my own GP, wise and endlessly cynical about the state of things. He told me not to be an idiot and to take some antidepressants, to make sure I was healthy before I went back, and to accept the psychology referral I’d been offered by occupational health.

Slowly, inexorably, the heaviness lifted. Walks along the river, hoping to see the kingfisher, coffees with kind colleagues, and good therapy helped.

I’ve been back at work for six months now, and I’ve seen that patient again. His list of problems has remained unchanged. Thankfully, I haven’t.

Burnout has taught me many things, not least the impact of working in a broken system.

I’m grateful that recovery has reminded me that I am only human. That this job does not get to demand more than I can give, and that change and healing are possible.

And that it’s probably best to ask for help before you reach the point of smashing coffee mugs and almost punching elderly patients.

Dr Gyda Meeten is a GP Partner in Forth Valley, Scotland



Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

Antonio Munno 4 May, 2023 1:25 pm

very powerful, thankyou for sharing. great to hear you’re coming out the other side of such an awful experience.
for others who might benefit remember: is an excellent, accessible, confidential service geared to the needs of doctors

Gyda Meeten 5 May, 2023 9:34 am

Thank you, Antonio – not an experience I’d want to go through again. Practitioner Health are great, and fortunately our local Occ Health service were too. I hope if anyone reading is feeling similar that they reach out for support. We need to dismantle some of the shame around burnout in general practice!