Author- Dr Deepthi N.S.
With all the constant messages that scream about having a healthy relationship with food here’s a brief story on my journey with food, in medicine.
So I was raised in a family where dinner time conversations (no books or phones!), having meals on time, a nutritious and filling diet had much importance. We never compromised on these values and little did we know how much my profession would hamper these beautiful grounding habits that I had grown into.
I can categorize my story into three phases of my life- as a medical student, an intern and as a resident.
So with medical school I quickly realised my life wouldn’t be in plain terms ‘rich’ anymore, at least in terms of food. My hostel had four meal timings, with fixed menus for the day that repeated itself every day of the year for five and a half years. The curries weren’t thick and creamy, the milk and egg (only one boiled egg and one tiny steel glass of milk) had to be paid for separately (not included with the heavy hostel fees paid per annum) and yes we had occasional surprise ‘visitors’ in our food. Soon enough my digestive system had bravely surpassed the initial stages of diarrhoea and nausea and I quickly adapted to the food. I was in my college basketball team and had a voracious appetite, so I told my gut to stop whining and take in the food that I was gulping down. Oh I’ve forgotten to mention that our food was pure vegetarian and there was only one non-vegetarian canteen that we could satisfy our cravings in. I’d grown up in the middle-east and my concept of non-vegetarian meals were a little different from the extra spicy, ‘floating oil’ on the top curries that were served, but something was better than nothing right?
Little did I realise that the worst was yet to come. Fast forward to my internship is when I was introduced to the rule “eat whenever you can”. Our internal medicine postings were long and gruelling and I would often find myself having my first meal at eight pm after the evening rounds were done for the day. I remember one morning following my night duty, I bought myself a Snickers bar as breakfast from our canteen and intuitively bought one for my resident who’d been on call with me too. The thankful look on his face when I gave him that bar of chocolate, he’s still a good friend of mine till date. Yes food can make or break relations. Another learning curve was this famous medical professor and head of the department at that time had taken us for coffee to our canteen after class. I and my friend figured we should pay, I don’t exactly remember what he said but I remember how angry he was that we had paid. He told us to never repeat it again but never kept a grudge, the great man that he was. This lesson that I learnt was soon to be reversed during residency but more about that later. Are you beginning to wonder how the hospital canteen is a character in my story? My hospital had curfews on its female students for both the hostel and the hospital campus after six pm even as an intern. With nowhere else to go, sandwiched in the hospital, that vending machine’s cappuccino was my best buddy as I would often wait for the radiology report on a trauma case at four am during my ER postings.
Residency was a different ball game altogether. From eating whenever you can the rule was “you’ve chosen the wrong profession if you are asking for a lunch break”. I honestly don’t remember ever carrying a tiffin or having lunch. My breakfast memories too are hazy, the only meals I remember having was the dinner and drinks me and my batch mates would take to find sanity after our torturous hours of work in the day. Needless to say this quickly led my nutrition deprived anorexic body frame to build up to an unhealthy obese frame. Beer belly is not a joke! The occasional lunches I remember having were traumatic as I’d be in constant fear that my seniors would find me taking a quick snack, you see the rule was “you do not eat before your senior does”. So it was a constant hide and seek game and no meal would go interrupted without at least two ward calls even if you’re not on duty. The mind has fun ways of dealing with trauma and mine very obviously chose to shut them away in a “forget-me” box inside my scarred brain. Remember the story of how my internal medicine professor taught me that when you’re a senior, your role is to take care of your sub-ordinates and lead by example? Yeah that took a 180 degree turn for me as the rule during residency was “when you’re a junior you buy tea and snacks during the day and drinks at five star hotels of your professor’s choice at night”. OPD would have patients close to three digit numbers and we as juniors would have to see the bulk of those cases, while running down the entire OPD taking orders for tea and snacks before the ‘aayamma’ would leave with her food tray. That wasn’t even the worst part, this so called ‘tea- break’ would basically be our professors and head of the department sitting on a chair having tea, while the residents stood around them. The rest of this ‘tea-break’ would be cherry picking each resident and grinding them with questions or asking personal questions and poking fun at him/her, the smart ones learned to deviate this ritual by praising our professors’ most recent surgery or class that they would’ve taken that morning etc… you get the drift. Most of us never got to have that tea we paid for, I personally found the hot seat questions with hot tea in my hands during the hot summers of Chennai too much for me to handle.
So where am I right now? Well, at the cooperate hospital where I work in, one of the best in its business is busy, in spite of it’s great infrastructure one would assume a ‘break room’ in the OPD is not too much to ask for? I find the habit of eating on the same desk you saw a patient just five minutes ago slightly unnerving adding to the fact that most of us bring foods with strong odours and do not really have much etiquette when it comes to ‘In-OPD’ dining. I’m still at a much better place though, I eat my meals on time, bring my own home cooked healthy meals to work and with regular exercise of the body and mind (no narcissistic professors around me), my world is bright again. The medical profession has a long way to go and refine our shoddy behaviours and toxic work ethics but I hope to see a future where the seniors and juniors have their meals together, peacefully and on time where we talk about medicine and laugh whole heartedly at a funny cat video in a well maintained break room. Cheers to that vision indeed!