My PLAB experience (a VERY long time coming!)

Very recently, I was asked by one of my friends if I could share my experience about the PLAB exams, as guidance for prospective candidates. Having taken the exams quite a while back (2014!) I found it hard to address the issue, so they sent me a questionnaire to make things easier to explain to someone not very familiar with the way forward when contemplating taking the PLAB exams. I am sharing the whole Q&A session here (with a few minor adjustments/deletions with the author’s permission). Thank you @Sadaf Taymor ( for the opportunity to express myself and to share an important experience with everyone!

The curious case of PLAB (09/10/2017)

What is the PLAB exam and how does it help in initiating a medical career in UK?
There are many routes of entry into the UK for doctors who wish to train here. The easiest and most common one is to take the PLAB  (or Professional and Linguistics Assessment Board) exam and become GMC certified. Let me tell you a bit about this – basically any country that you work in has their own authority that confirms that you are good to practice in that country. For Pakistan, that authority is the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, for the UK it is the General Medical council. Passing BOTH PLAB 1&2 gets you the license for the GMC to practice. After you get those out of the way and are certified then you are basically allowed to practice in the UK. That’s what people usually do.
The PLAB exams are the basic, entrance-level exams. You could potentially also get GMC certified by taking any of the more advanced membership exams for any of the Royal Colleges (but more about that at a later juncture – let’s keep this simple!)
The bottom line is you can not practice medicine in the UK without being GMC certified, and the easiest and most common route of entry to get that is to take the PLAB exams.
What kind of a format does this exam follow and what time limit does the candidate have for the exam
The PLAB has 2 parts – both are compulsory to pass individually. The first part is theoretical, and is based on the multiple choice questions format (or should I say, the single best answer format). You are given three hours to answer 200 questions. I have often heard people lament that the time is not enough, but I think it is doable. It may be difficult if you are not used to such a format, but in this field, better get used to this format, because later exams are also going to be in the same manner, same time frame (possibly even worse!)
The second part is interactive and consists of multiple stations. It is OSCE-based format, where each candidate rotates in 14 stations, each station assessing a different skill. Examples of such interactive sessions include taking a proper history, examining certain system, counselling a patient about something, and so on.
You can attempt the PLAB 1 as many times as you wish. Once you pass it, you have three years to pass the second part, failing which you will have to take the PLAB 1 again. You have 4 maximum attempts to take the PLAB 2.
Does the test have a certain validity?
Once you pass both parts of the exam and are GMC certified, you do not have to retake it again. You just have to keep up to date your assessments and your competence and you get re-validated automatically every 5 years.
 Any specific tips on cracking the test?
For the first part, I would advise go back to your roots, back to the basics. The whole syllabus is available on the GMC/PLAB websites. Try to practice as many questions as you can, get your tempo going, get used to this format before you take the exam. 2-3 months of prep should be enough.
For the second part, it can only be taken in the UK so make sure you have everything sorted before you travel for the exam. There are course available which guide and prepare and help practice the various stations that may come in the exam. These preparatory courses are much recommended before you take the PLAB 2 (if you have never worked in the UK or similar circumstances before).

ECT – the conflict within

DISCLAIMER 1 – EXTRA-LONG POST. You have been warned.
DISCLAIMER 2 – More importantly – this is in no way supposed to be a ‘for’ or ‘against’ type of post regarding any particular therapy/treatment – it is just my opinion and my own feelings about this experience which was very new to me. Bear with me, before rushing to judgement or conclusion – and if you already have formed an opinion without prior knowledge/experience then please stop reading further!)

For those of you who do not know, I have recently started my 6 month rotation in Anesthesia as part of my emergency medicine training, and it has introduced me to a whole new weird and wonderful world that is equal parts unexpected and fun and slightly scary but mostly awesome. But more about that later. Today (and for the past few days) I have been wrestling with some inner demons (wow, that’s not melodramatic at all!) about a recent experience and the ensuing internal conflict broiling inside me. I will try to explain things in my usual way, which is to take you on that journey with me.

So the day usually starts at 7:30 AM, and the rota tells you it’s a different theater every morning – I checked the night before and all it said was that I was assigned to a particular consultant to shadow (read badger/annoy for the rest of the day!) and that we were supposed to be in the “ECT” area (theater?) in a completely different building from the one I had been going to for operations/procedures requiring anaesthetics in the past week. My first thought was ECT? It can’t be electroconvulsive therapy? That’s not still being done in this day and age? But I texted one of my friends in the same rotation as I am, and he said this area was in the building that houses the maternity block, and I thought it was probably some sort of gynaecological/obstetric procedure requiring anaesthesia which is why I am being assigned to this and I am sure I thought of ECV – external cephalic version! I reassured myself and went to bed, woke up the next day bright and early and headed to whatever this amazing day heralded. It was not amazing. Atleast, not initially.

ECT, as it turned out, did mean electroconvulsive therapy – a treatment for drug-resistant psychiatric conditions (please excuse the rough/non-medical language) – and I found out that what I was assigned to today was in fact the ECT suite, a separate entity from the rest of the hospital- where I was shown around while I was waiting for the consultant. There was a procedure room, with anaesthetic stuff and an OT table, and a separate recovery area. There were 4 nurses, a head nurse, 2 health care assistants and 1 psychiatrist/consultant – aside from my anaesthetics consultant and absolute-novice-baby me! The whole area was very peaceful and calm, and the staff were very friendly and spoke in calm, reassuring voices even when they asked me if I would like a cup of tea. I felt myself calm down a bit (I was nervous because A- I had no idea what to expect and B- I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT!)

There were 4 patients on the list for today. 3 of them (the first 2 and the last one) were regulars, here for their 7th, 3rd and 11th treatments, so they did not need pre-assessments doing from an anaesthetics point of view – just a confirmation of their consent for the current procedure (consent did not mean a blanket consent for all treatments, you could consent to the first treatment and revoke consent at any later treatment session, if you were deemed to have capacity. All 4 patients today had capacity) The 4th one had completed 12 sessions of the ECT previously and that usually meant their treatment was over. But their doctor had assessed them and had thought that despite the improvement the patient could benefit from further sessions, and so they had to give another detailed informed consent – because initially they had consented to the 12 sessions, and this was adding on to what they had initially consented for. But I digress – there was just so much to take in and learn that I do not want to miss out on any of the details/finer points that I came across.

So anyway – while we waited for the first patient to turn up, my consultant took pity on the incredulous expression that I had on my face (this was without me realising it) and explained a few things to me, and looked up a very good paper for me to read about ECT. He broke down what we needed to do here, which basically entailed: introducing ourselves; confirming patient details; confirming no changes to medical/pre-assessment history had taken place in the last week since last treatment; putting a cannula in; hooking them up to some monitoring (continuous ECG trace, pulse oximeter, blood pressure, an initial temperature reading) and also hooking them to an EEG machine which is basically just like an ECG of the brain – mapping the electrical activity of the brain; administering the induction agent (usually propofol) and/or a sedative, and supporting the patients breathing before, during and after the procedure till the anaesthetic wears off.  ECT is basically electric current that is run via two ports/electrodes placed at both temples while the patient is unconscious. The current causes your neutrons to fire in a way to cause a generalised toniclonic seizure, and your brain activity is mapped continuously to make sure it has worked, and that the seizure lasts a certain length of time (usually greater than 10 seconds but on average about 30seconds in duration). It is essentially equivalent to being ‘under’ for a surgical procedure, just like you don’t feel the surgeons scalpel or drill, you do not feel the actual shock. Your heart rate and oxygen levels and blood pressure and all that jazz is continuously monitored and in the event of any fluctuations, it is handled by the team of extremely qualified individuals in attendance, as it would be in any surgical procedure. But the actual procedure was what caused me to be so incredulous. Why, you may ask? I will explain, but first let me take you through the first patient’s treatment.

This was a 50-something female, with a history of depression, and she had become so depressed that she had stopped eating and drinking, and none of the medication or combinations of medications had seemed to work on her. I had all this information from her history sheet, and chatting with the consultant psychiatrist made it clear that this was sort of a last resort. She had become anorexic to the point that she didn’t really have the strength to lift up her head from where she lay in bed, to take a sip of water. She was initially medically rehabilitated, her caloric intake monitored and her strength returned, and while she had become medically fit, her depression was still strong. She began this prescribed treatment, and today was coming in for her 7th session. She had been almost a complete mute prior to the first treatment, and was markedly different today. She walked in to the room unsupported (I thought she would atleast be in a wheelchair). She made eye contact with all of us. She smiled at me when I said good morning, and replied shyly that it was indeed a good morning. As they hooked her up to the various monitors she looked around with that smile her face, and gave adequate responses to the questions and requests from the staff members, such as May I put these ECG stickers on you?, and can I put a cannula into the back of your hand? We walked her through the procedure, put her under and after she had drifted off to sleep and we were monitoring her airway and breathing, we put a rubber/foam type thing between her teeth so she wouldn’t end up biting her tongue or lips, and then they placed those electrodes on her temples and …I don’t know what I expected, probably that the patients arms would flail around and her legs would jerk up off the table and it would all be very violent and gruesome. It was certainly difficult to see, but nothing quite as dramatic as that. She just straightened out a bit, feet became a bit rigid and there was a generalise trembling, followed by some twitching. The continuous EEG trace showed she had had a seizure that lasted 34 seconds, and while she became tachycardiac during it, she settled down almost at once after the seizure ended. She began breathing spontaneously after a few minutes and was taken to recovery as she regained consciousness. And now for the crux of this post – the reason why I was so conflicted.

All my life, or at least the last 10 years when I have been a doctor (15 if you count medical school) I have been working with the idea that we need to minimize seizures and we work very hard to figure why someone may have had their first fit, to try and prevent it from happening again, and I have been involved in extensively counselling and reassuring family and patients and parents of toddlers etc on the subject – so the ‘inducing’ of a seizure as a treatment was a bit of a shock – no pun intended! I knew the patient came to no harm from the immediate procedure, the electric current and the anaesthesia, and they actually did not feel anything, much like any surgical procedure (with the added benefit of amnesia as a known side effect of propofol!) and much more importantly, the patients reportedly feel better and they don’t have memory of it etc etc. But having never actually witnessed it before, I had quite mixed feelings about it because it conflicted with my mindset of ‘how to manage a seizing patient’ – as opposed to this current situation – once again, no pun intended! The conflict I speak about is not of the “ohmygod I do not agree with this practise how dare they?!” type of reflection, and I apologise if it sounded that way. Rather it is more of a “everything I feel inherently about this situation is basically not true!” and I had to actively try and work towards not panicking when I saw this patient seize. And the one after that. And the one after that. It didn’t get any easier, and I didn’t get used to it and it really bothered me. I didn’t know what really was most bothersome for me. Was it the fact that I pride myself in being completely professional and see all sorts of unexpected medical scenarios and presentations as an emergency medicine trainee with the calm and focussed approach that is taught and cultivated in my specialty, but that in my almost 6 or so years of emergency medicine experience, I have never been this affected by any procedure or situation? In other words, was it the procedure that had bothered me, or my own reaction to it?

A few positive notes/observations from the day –
*Any patient who can consent because they are deemed to have capacity will be asked for their explicit consent for the treatment, and they will be given the full information regarding it. Out of the 4 patients scheduled for the day, the 3rd one who was coming in for her 13th treatment (having completed 12 previous ones and deemed to still be in requirement of a few further sessions) came in and then declined to give consent for the next one. And, even though she had consented for 12 sessions and had had them, AND she had the capacity to refuse at any time, we respected her decision and she went home. We didn’t just strap her down like a bunch of frankenstein-y mad doctors while cackling in high pitched laughter to administer jolts of voltage against her will – though I will be the first to admit this is what I thought when I first found out I was in the ECT suite, that this was my unfortunate concept of ECT, based on nothing but my (very vivid, it turns out) imagination.
*Also, it has been around since 1938 – there is tons of research on this topic and while it is all shrouded in controversy mostly due to preconceived notions and ideas, there is no denying the absolute faith people have in this treatment.
*The sons of the first patient who’s treatment I detailed earlier were sat outside in the relatives’ room and while the patient was being wheeled to recovery, I went and asked them how they felt the treatment was affecting their mum. They both agreed there was a distinct difference in Mum, that she had begun enjoying her meals – looking forward to what was on the menu for the day,  offering to go to the park with the grandchildren and making plans for one of the sons’ wedding that was supposed to be an out of country type thing. This was in stark contrast to her being in the throes of progressively worsening depression since their father had passed away a few years ago.
*They don’t just administer this treatment without trying anything else.
*It is not like touching a live wire; you don’t feel anything – you aren’t zapped like a Tom&Jerry cartoon situation. In fact, the voltage is so low that I was surprised that while the current was being administered, one of the nurses had their hands on the patient’s chin as a reinforcing/reassuring measure. They were clearly not feeling the effects of a transmitted significant voltage, unlike in a cardiac arrest situation if you administer an electrical shock, you have to be clear and not touching any part of the patient’s body lest you get a shock as well. It is all very professional and clean and protocol-oriented.
*There are a lot of good people working very hard to make the experience as comfortable and easy for the patient as possible.

At some point I will probably do some research into the subject. It has certainly piqued my interest – but I am ashamed to admit I won’t be looking forward to the next time I get assigned to this area, and I dread looking at the rota announcing when I am going to go there next. And at some point I may actually grow to appreciate the whole process. And look beyond the obvious conflict. But today is not that day. Sigh.

Guest Blog Post by Dr. Hassan Alraee – “My MRCEM OSCE Experience”

This is our second guest blog post from esteemed colleague Dr. Hassan Alraee – Emergency Medicine Registrar (Ireland). I take no credit for the following text.

Dear Colleagues,
I am sharing my MRCEM OSCE experience with you guys as I realized while preparing for the exam there was not much guidance available online. The aim of this post is to familiarize everyone with what the exam entails and a few tips which may be helpful in your preparation for the OSCE.
This may not be a structured or typical guidance post, it may come out as a random collection of thoughts but I will try my best to note down everything that was helpful to me during the preparation for the OSCE.
First of all to be eligible to appear in the exam you need to have passed the FRCEM Primary exam, passing the FRCEM Intermediate SAQ exam is NOT one of the eligibility criteria. However, in my experience passing the FRCEM Intermediate SAQ exam gives you a baseline in theoretical knowledge that is required for the OSCE. So it would be ideal to attempt the exams in the sequence that has been set, i.e. Primary, Intermediate and OSCE.
Before beginning your preparation for the exam have a look at the MRCEM Information Pack available on the RCEM website. A list of study material that may be helpful includes;
1. MCEM Part C: 125 OSCE Stations by Kiran Somani
2. Mastering Emergency Medicine: A Practical Guide by Mathew Hall
3. Bromley Webinars
4. At least 1 (if not more) of the following courses; The London Clinical Course, The Bromley Course or the Manchester Course.
The exam itself feels like a daunting task during the preparation phase as it is completely different to the previous parts and reading books alone is not the best way to get through it. My advice would be to stick to one of the above mentioned books and go through it once. The next step would be to create a practice group which should comprise of at least 3 members. This would mean all 3 of you would be able to rotate through different roles during the practice sessions, i.e. The candidate, The actor and The examiner. In my humble opinion this practice group is the key to being successful in the exam. The final step would be to book one of the above mentioned courses. In order to maximize the courses you need to be fully prepared for the exam by the time you attend the course and treat it as a Mock Examination.
Each of the courses has their own pros and cons but all of them are helpful in preparing you for the OSCE.
Each OSCE comprises of 18 stations, 2 of which are rest stations. The exam does not test your theoretical knowledge to a great extent, the stations in the OSCE are designed to test various skills. Like all OSCE exams there is a fair degree of play acting and exaggeration of your daily practices is required. By this I mean that the examiner will only mark you on the actions you perform during the exam, so make sure you show every step and tick most boxes in the examiner’s checklist.
The basic outline of the stations encountered within the OSCE are;
1) There are 2 to 3 history taking stations, remember to complete the station by giving the patient a management plan based on the history.
2) A Systemic examination station (CVS, Respiratory, Abdominal, Cranial Nerve or Peripheral Vascular examination)
3) A Joint examination station (Hip, Shoulder, Knee, Back, C-spine or a limb examination)
4) A Breaking Bad News scenario
5) There are 2 or 3 teaching stations which may include teaching a procedure or examination to a student or a junior doctor.
6) There is always a Conflict Resolution in the OSCE as well, which may be a missed fracture or pneumothorax or a difficult referral. This station also includes talking to a patient with Alcohol Dependence or Binge Drinking.
7) 2 scenarios within the OSCE are always Resuscitation Scenarios and test your skills in ACLS, APLS or ATLS. These stations seem like they are the most difficult ones while preparing for the exam, but in my opinion you can easily pass these if you make a good approach towards resus stations during your practice sessions. The Key to the resus scenarios is sticking to the ABCDE approach.
8) ENT and Eye station; in the exam they can check your knowledge on these in various ways it can be a simple otoscopic or ophthalmoscopic examination, teaching may be incorporated into it or history taking could be tested but there will always be a station that will involve ENT or Eye.
9) A quick assessment station; this one is a tricky one, it usually has the task of taking a short history, performing a focused examination and formulating a management plan based on your findings and summarizing it to the patient.
10) An Information Providing station; this station usually involves a relative of the patient to whom you have to explain a new diagnosis or management of a medical condition. Juvenile Diabetes Mellitus and Addision’s Disease are 2 examples that I can recall.
11) A Psychiatric Station is always present in the OSCE, you may be asked to performed a Mental state examination on a patient or assess suicide risk, they may add a conflict resolution component to this station as well.

In my opinion if you divide your preparation according to these 11 types of stations you will be able to cover most of the things required to be successful. Some additional topics that are tested in different ways and I haven’t categorized under the stations include; DVT, major incidents, seizures and driving advice. It would be wise to look up the NICE guidelines on these.
I would also suggest that you reach the city where the exam is being held one day earlier and have a look at your examination center that day. Just so you know how long it takes to get there and don’t have the extra stress of finding the center on the morning of the exam. Please spend your last 2 days traveling and relaxing, there is no point in trying to cram in stuff over the last 2-3 days as this is not a theoretical exam where they expect you to know everything.
On the exam day itself it is understandable to be anxious and stressed and believe me the examiners know that the candidates are under pressure and are not there to fail you. You should know that staying cool and calm is the most important feature that will enable you to be successful. It usually takes 1 or 2 stations to get into the groove of the exam as the 1st station comes up it is normal to feel a little nervous or blank out temporarily. Do not act bold and wing it if you are unsure about something, be safe at this stage and say you are unable to recall at this point in time and that you will consult the department policy or your consultant before implementing it.
Do not worry if any of your stations don’t go as well as you expected them to, leave the previous station behind you and move on to the next one. Do not let your performance on the previous station affect your performance on the next one. I know this is easier said than done but it has to be said as it is human nature to dwell on the past. You should also know that there is not a minimum number of stations that need to be passed to pass the exam, that was how it used to be in the past. The marking scheme has changed to a cumulative score now and a different passing mark is set for every OSCE day so even if you fail a station you carry forward marks from it towards your overall score. Therefore it is imperative that you score marks for the basic things on each station. Some of these include greeting the actor, washing hands before and after examination, wearing personal protective equipment (or at least mentioning it to the examiner), being warm and courteous and thanking the actor at the end. These simple things may be the difference between a pass and fail score in your OSCE.
I hope it was helpful for all those that are reading this post, good luck with your exam, with a bit of structure and practice I’m sure you will pass the OSCE.

Sometimes it is the smallest things that make you the saddest

Ever notice how you can go on being an automaton, robotically engaging in work stuff, moving from one patient to the other, each one a statistic on your ever growing list of patients to see or having had seen – no interaction long enough to actually create a connection other than that of patient/doctor and you professionally enter and exit the cubicle and move on to the next job, next patient, or indeed next shift. And yet sometimes it does happen that something hits the mark, and there is a chink in the armour, the professionalism slips (not outwardly, but it surprises you that you feel something other than empathy towards the patient in front of you – you really look at the patient, not as just a patient but an actual human being with feelings, and thoughts start milling around your head – or your heart? – and you think of the patient’s feelings, their desires and weaknesses, the consequences of their actions – and you realise with a jolt that you are not an automaton, that you are, indeed, human.

I am usually a happy presence at work (if I may say so myself) but I was having a particularly ‘smiling-from-ear-to-ear’ day a few days back. A recent couple of professional achievements, along with being well rested from a full night’s sleep meant I was walking around with a bit more bounce in my step. I was working a late shift, but from the broad smile on my face you would have thought I was about to go home on a 2 week holiday! (I was not, but yes, I am a bit weird – I actually have fun at work!) – I was assigned to see paeds patients in ED, all the minors, majors, ENP ones etc – and I was going about my day when the consultant asked me to come out of Paeds for a bit and see the next adult patient, who was already at 3 hours (that much time had elapsed since she had come in to the hospital) – the brief note from triage nurse said that this was a young female between 25-35 years of age, who had come in with a self harm injury or injuries – she was categorised as a ‘yellow’ which meant there was no imminent threat to her life but she did warrant a thorough assessment.

Treatment/management of such cases is usually 2-pronged: one, manage the obvious injury or insult and treat the current presentation, and two (and more importantly) try to deal with and manage the longterm/shortterm psychological aspects of the presentation (not an ED thing but there are certainly specialist who are better equipped to deal with this and who very kindly assess and evaluate patients from that perspective after they have been treated from a physical ailment point of view. So anyway – I went in to see the patient – it had been mentioned in the notes that she was accompanied by her support worker – but the woman who stood up when I announced the name in the waiting area was alone. And she stood up at once and followed me into the cubicle to be assessed, along the way I introduced myself, and thanked her for her patience in waiting. She was extremely polite, and even offered me a smile, but she kept looking anywhere but at me directly. I asked her what had brought her to the ED that evening and she matter of factly stated that she was here because she had self-harmed. Again. She did not seem to be in any sort of pain, so I assumed (wrongly) that she had a superficial sort of wound that wouldn’t really require too much medical attention. I smiled at her and said something along the lines of ‘well, let’s see what we are dealing with here, and I will try to help you any way I can.” She exposed her left arm unto her shoulder, and I took off her temporary dressings from her upper arm (above her elbow) – while I was doing so, I kept making small talk, and registered the many, many scars from previous self harm attempts there before me were 4 very large, very long, and VERY gaping full thickness lacerations to her upper arm. In places where normally the skin/muscle sags a bit, it was really using the lacerated margins to gape quite widely. The patient had something like an hour left before they breached? NO WAY was I going to be able to administer local anaesthetic AND suture all 4 of these wounds in under an hour. Alone.

This patient completely threw me off my game. I have closed wounds in numerous ways, and in all sorts of weird and wonderful places – I have once years ago even raced my mentor consultant orthopaedic surgeon in bilateral knee replacements to see who closed up their respective knee first! – But this time was different. This patient was different. And the reason will become apparent up ahead.

I called my consultant because he may have been under the impression this was a quick ‘tape-wound-shut-refer-to-psych-move-on’ kind of situation – he stepped into the cubicle and hemmed and hawwed. I was silent throughout. This felt like an operating table scenario with a patient’s body cavity open up in front of me – The smell was exactly the same. Flesh. Blood. Sadness.

Right then, the consultant asked me to stitch the wounds up – I gave the wounds a good thorough clean with some saline and the patient did not flinch. She did however, apologise quite sincerely for wasting my time. I will not go into the details of why she thought she needed to do this today – absolutely no judgements to be passed here on that account. But I did assure her she was well within her rights to be there. I said I would go calculate the amount of local anaesthetic require and get it and get it all ready – and her polite demeanor stiffened up. She absolutely refused any local anesthetic. She said, and I quote: ‘ I am not here to waste any of your valuable resources. Please use them for someone who really deserves it – and anyway, I am not in pain and the stitching can’t hurt me more than I have done myself – also (and I was surprised that she knew this) the amount of local anaesthetic required would be a bit too much and wouldn’t be safe for me – and it would wear off by the time it was done being administered!” She was right on all counts – but I requested my consultant to give me an opinion, since she had me absolutely flummoxed. He agreed, no need for the anaesthesia – and that I would achieve better results with a skin stapler rather than suturing the wounds. I had never used skin staplers outside of an OR before, and never on a patient who was conscious and sitting up and talking to me and FEELING THE STAPLES GOING IN! I took a few deep breaths. Got the stuff ready. Took a few more deep breaths. And a few more. And dove in. I put in upwards of 45 or so staples (yes metallic pins sharp enough to stab through the superficial tissues of skin etc and pull them close to optimise wound healing) – did I mention the wounds were exceptionally gaping? Each staple gun comes with 30 or so staples – and I had to use a second one about halfway as well. Wow. My mind was already blown after the first 2-3 staples. But I went on putting more in. I did my best – and to her credit she did not flinch. There was silence. And that smell. And sometimes she would talk to me.

She kept thanking me, and apologising to me, and kept pushing her other hand through her hair as if berating herself mentally. She told me she had a masters degree in something (I forget what – my ears still start ringing everytime I think back to that cubicle) and we chatted about how I wanted to pursue another degree, maybe a masters of some sort and hadn’t quite decided what. She guided me about which staple to remove because it had been bent at an awkward angle due to how gaping the wound was initially, and so when I had ‘scaffolded’ it with staples next to it either side, I removed the offending staple and put another one in. Like I said, she didn’t flinch. At all. She kept that small polite smile in place, was very respectful and I learnt something new about myself that day. That this had gotten to me beyond what I can express here or anywhere. I had seen dead and dying people almost on a daily basis. People in pain, people vomiting with pain, people trying to process bad news or loss or a shock. I have been the villain in so many stories in peoples lives – the bringer or the news that someone they loved had passed away, or what the reports had shown or why we feel that further aggressive measures would be futile – But I had not been affected by those things as much as this calm young woman had affected me. What about her affected me? Nothing about her situation. It was sad, no doubt. But what really affected me was what I realised about myself: I judge people, I am cynical about them, about their diagnoses, about their mental health problems – I never fully appreciated that when someone comes in to hospital following an overdose or some deliberate attempt at self harm, I focus solely on the physical aspect of the case, and let someone else deal with the mental/psychological/psychiatric aspect of it. But this time, I was metaphorically chained to the situation I usually avoid and judge as a spectator – and I could not escape how normal this young woman appeared. She was well read, had a grace and calm in her manner that belied a good upbringing – yet she was obviously in this mental pain and it got so severe sometimes that like this day, the thought of cutting herself and so brutally was her only way to cope with it, and possibly caused her less pain that she was already in. And to be able to get sutures or staples without any anaesthesia on board – how remarkably strong a pain threshold would you have to bear that? Or that you were so used to it that this was all just commonplace occurrence to her. And this wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that this was neither the first time, nor (we both knew) the last time that she went down this route. I could help her physically, suture/staple everything – but did I actually do anything at all to really, truly help her?

So like I said – we are usually automatons, going about our daily drudgery – and then one day a patient really opens our eyes and makes us sit back – and question …absolutely everything we know and believe in and understand. Or don’t understand.

(Edit: The rest of the shift went by in a blur or a haze, I don’t know if it was all too fast or all too slow for me. I am I think back to my usual self now – albeit with one difference. I am maybe not so quick to judge – and maybe not so quick to dismiss mental anguish based upon my perception of the physical consequences of that mental anguish. I admit to not knowing enough – and hope I can change my practise in a way makes all of this worthwhile.)

Rat-Bite Fever

You really do learn something new everyday!

So today I had a patient – 4 year old male with a 24 hour history of abdominal pain which woke him up in the middle of the previous night (he kept crying and pointing to his tummy, saying ‘ouch’ over and over again), associated with 1 episode of vomiting, and this morning when he woke up he had a fever (40 degrees) and was off his food and drink – Mum took him to the doctors, who diagnosed him (provisionally, I guess) with tonsillitis and sent him home with oral antibiotics (phenoxymethylpenicillin) the child had as yet only had 1 dose od this antibiotic but Mum felt he was being very difficult to feed/keep fluids down so was concerned, child still had an ongoing fever of 39.4. There was no history of any rashes, no cough but had a sniffly nose the last couple of days. Wetting nappies as per usual (a sure sign he was taking in enough fluids) but no dirty nappies today (not unusual for this patient to go x2 days without pooing) Upon my review he was a bit upset, and seemed to be in discomfort, despite having had some sickly sweet paracetamol a while ago to counter the fever.

He had a background of some degree of developmental delay due to a disorder that I do not want to disclose here, for patient confidentiality so this story is untraceable back to them. There were no other comorbidities.

On examination, the child was sitting in Mum’s lap, crying but was settling down when soothed. ENT exam revealed a slightly hyperaemic throat with enlarged tonsils, no exudate or discharge. He kept sticking his tongue out and wincing when he swallowed – pointing towards the possibility of odynophagia or painful swallowing. May explain the ‘off food and drink’ as may be too painful for him to swallow. The mother was giving him regular round the clock calpol though, so difficult to say. Ears were wax-laden and I could not visualise a tympanic membrane in either. Chest was clear to auscultation, no heart murmurs or other weird sounds on listening to the chest. Tummy was nice and soft with no palpable masses and child did not appear to be in discomfort when tummy was examined. He was moving all four limbs, neck seemed soft and his observations (vitals – heart rate, capillary refill/BP, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation on room air – were all within normal limits; all except the temperature, which was still high despite the calpol. I prescribed some ibuprofen. There were no rashes (did I already say that? Yes, that was history, this is examination) – Moving on…

I asked mum if he had been unwell prior to the waking up with the ‘ouches’ in the abdomen? She reported he had spent the weekend with Dad, where he had been bitten by a rat (!!!) on the right index finger – sure enough, on examining, his right index finger had a blackened almost shiny minuscule raised bit – an unmistakeable bite mark, on the distal end of the finger. Surrounding area was a bit reddened and slightly inflamed looking. On movement of the finger, hand, wrist etc, he did not seem to be in a lot of discomfort, though he wasn’t exactly happy I was poking and prodding him so much. There were no palpable axillary etc lymph nodes either – but he was a bit warm to the touch still, and when the temperature was rechecked it was 40 again! We quickly started some antipyretic measures while I quickly listed the differentials in my mind. A) It seemed very likely that the tonsillitis was not bacterial (probably) as a sniffly nose and the acuity and high grade of the fever pointed towards a viral upper respiratory tract infection. It could still be a bacterial infection, though, so I wasn’t going to stop the antibiotics. B) I could potentially/probably send the patient home, as even though they did not seem to be drinking too much, they seemed to be weeing as per usual, according to their wet nappies frequency, with advice to sort of force fluids, along with some adequate antipyretic advice and analgesia advice, with followup in the GP surgery, and that if situation worsens or any of the red flag signs appears, to come to A&E instead. C) could it be an infection spread by the bite of the rat? This last bit I honestly did not know – I had heard and studied about (and mcqsed!) about cat scratch disease and dog bites and human bites and tick bites, but I had never in the course of my 5 year study or almost 10 years as a doctor come across a rat bite – my curiosity piqued. I did what everyone does when they are confused about something – I want to say something impressive like ‘I discussed it with my seniors etc etc’ but in reality I … googled it! (I discussed it with my seniors after that, though, who very kindly reviewed the patient, and discussed it with the paeds registrar and admitted this patient to the hospital – the rationale being they still had a fever despite significant attempts by Mum and A&E staff.) But my google search was very fruitful, and I present to you a few bits and pieces about RAT-BITE FEVER (yes, sounds very impressive and a little icky, and it is!): (this information is courtesy of the CDC website, which is probably the most reliable and authentic information out there as it is so aptly named the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention!)

It is a bacterial infection, has two types of bacteria implicated in it: the spirilary (spirillum minus bacteria) type and the streptobacillary (caused by streptobacillus moniliformis) type. It is transmitted by either being bitten or scratched by infected rodents, or with regular handling of infected rodents even without being bitten, or due to ingestion of the pathogens in food/water that is laced with rat urine/feces. It is not contagious. Symptoms include invariably a combination of any or all of the following: fever, vomiting, headache, joint pains, muscle aches, headache, rash, ulcer at bite wound, swelling around the wound and swollen lymph nodes. Can we agree we are ticking off a lot of the boxes for rat-bite fever? Symptoms may begin within a few days of being bitten by a rodent, or may present a few weeks after the bite. Rash is usually maculopapular. There are certain people at risk – like if you have a rat fetish or handle them or keep them as pets or if your local rat population lives alongside your local human population. Penicillin is the treatment of choice – don’t ask me what it is when you are allergic to penicillin! Complications include meningitis, myocarditis, pneumonia and rarely death. *cue ominous music* Prevention is a) avoid rats! duh b)practise good hygiene c) do not put infected fingers into the mouth.


I reiterate: Learn something new everyday!