The Well Unwell
What's it like being a doctor, whilst managing your own chronic illness?
Doctor Stories
September 23, 2020

Dr Melissa Hancock is a clinical and laboratory haematologist based in Queensland (Australia). Living with a chronic illness, she’s in the unusual (and unenviable) position of regularly being a patient as well as being a doctor.

Dr Mel became a doctor because she “wanted to save the world” and address the injustices and inequalities of the world. But, like all doctors, to save the world she has to prioritise her own health and wellness. She also believes that education is key to better health and, bringing together her knowledge and experiences, she regularly writes a blog called ‘The Well Unwell’.

We talked to Dr Mel to find out more about her and how she approaches wellness, health and education.

What’s it like working as a doctor and managing your own chronic illness?

I had my first experience as a patient just after my physician exams (so about 6 years ago). Initially, I developed trigeminal nerve symptoms. 12 months after that I was found to have a pituitary adenoma (which is well controlled now). But in my final year of haematology training, I developed the same nerve pain in my limbs. This is thought to be immune mediated. I’ve been on weekly IVIg for a bit over a year now. Fortunately, the neuropathy stopped spreading with the IVIg and my fatigue is much better.

How to do you manage working the long hours of a doctor and your own illness?

I kept pushing through for a long time and my colleagues were all very supportive. In the end though, I had to consider what was going to be sustainable for a (hopefully) long career. So, I made some difficult decisions and cut back my work load. I now work part time. By the time I decided to do this, I was a consultant which was fortunate, because I have more flexibility in determining my work hours.

Do you think the illness causes you to connect differently with your patients or have more empathy?

It’s given me a very interesting perspective. I don’t know if you can truly appreciate the difficulties, uncertainty and anxieties of being a patient until you are one. Even little things, like cannulas hurt a lot more than you think (not a “little sting”) and the time factor – scheduling all your appointments, treatments, scans.

Tell us about 'The Well Unwell' website and what you’d like to achieve with this project?

I had been thinking about doing it for quite a while. Particularly before I started treatment, I struggled to find resources – allied health that have an interest in this area, tips and tricks to managing nerve pain on a daily basis, living with chronic illness on a daily basis. There’s a lot of focus on “wellness” recently, so how do you be “well” if you aren’t actually? This was a concept I really wanted to explore – as someone who manages symptoms daily, but also tries to lead a full life.

Having experienced both the patient and the doctor side, I thought I could offer a unique insight that may help others. It’s also just things I’ve learned over the last few years, managing my symptoms.

I think doctor’s health is also something we (as a profession and individuals) need to be better at. Medicine is a marathon, and it can be mentally, emotionally and physically taxing. But again, how do you manage that when you’re not actually well. I love my job, and it took a lot of hard work to get to where I am, so I want to make sure I can have as long a career as possible.

It’s still early days, but so far I’ve had pretty positive feedback – both for my topics, but also just for sharing my story.

From the perspective of both a patient and a doctor do you think the health and wellbeing of the industry could be improved?

Time, unfortunately, is always going to pressured in healthcare. Education is very important, and there’s a lot of people trying very hard – but there just isn’t the time. Some kind of unified booking system would probably help too!

As a patient, how would you feel about putting your health in the hands of a doctor who didn't attend to their own?

I find it hard not to be ‘doctor Mel’ with questions like these, and just express concern for my colleagues. There’s a lot of long hours, ‘pushing through’ and feeling guilty about taking time off in medicine. But you have to look after yourself! I think this paradigm is changing, but it’s a process.

Follow her blog here: https://thewellunwell.com

Are you a doctor with a story to share? Contact us at info@medworld.com.

Article by
Dr Mel Hancock

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