Emma Espiner: Why hospital’s not that different from Parliament

The Right Honourable Sir Robert Muldoon said there are some doctors who make you well and some who make you sick. 

I don't often meditate on the words of the Right Honourable Sir but these ones have been front of mind as I begin the clinical part of my training in the unique world of a large urban hospital. Interestingly, and for different reasons, they were also on Bill English's mind, as he recounted them in his valedictory speech at Parliament last week. 

Me and Bill, thinking about Rob. Him in Parliament, me in the hospital. Two places that are more similar than you might think. 

I've worked in a few different environments. Whenever I start in a new workplace I try to write down my first impressions because in what feels like no time at all, habituation takes hold and it is hard to recall the feeling of disorientation and remember what was alien and remarkable to new eyes. I've found that there's something about acclimation and the desire to fit in which obscures one's personality during the introduction phase in a new workplace and to new colleagues. Assumptions are jettisoned, personal values suspended while you test the boundaries of what's acceptable.  

In this way, my only comparable experience to starting work at a hospital was working at Parliament. 

Actually, I should clarify something right off the bat before the university sends me a strongly-worded email about overstating my abilities - 'working' isn't exactly what I'm doing at the hospital. The fourth year of the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Auckland is something of a speed dating version of work experience. Not in a #metoo way I hasten to add. We swap teams every 4-6 weeks. This is how we learn about different medical and surgical specialities. It tests our adaptability, resolve and interpersonal abilities. Not to mention our navigational skills. 

I've written before about the unique work environment at Parliament. The essentially political nature of the place that I thought couldn't be replicated elsewhere in its tribalism, complexity and fiendish personality traits. This was before I'd seen the inner workings of a large hospital. 


At Parliament, titles are important. Heaven forbid you neglect an Hon or a Rt Hon in correspondence. Confusing an MP for staff is another terrifyingly possible faux pas. Most normal people couldn't name half of the members of Cabinet so what chance does a political naïve on her first job at Parliament have of recognising the Member for New Plymouth? "What do you do here?" "I'm the MP for Botany" … "Oh cool is that in India?" 

You get the picture. 

In the hospital, you don't want to call someone Mr when they should be Dr, or Dr when they should be Ms or god forbid you mistake your consultant for a registrar. Mucking up someone's title is second in my recurrent nightmares only to the prospect of being late. I saw something on Twitter recently about how frequently women doctors get mistaken for nurses. Frankly I'm more worried about the career-limiting potential of mistaking a consultant for a house officer than anyone thinking I'm anything other than a medical student. Not to mention that, at this stage, my being mistaken for a qualified nurse would be hellishly insulting to the nurses. 

So many rooms: 

The buildings in both settings are labyrinthine. Now, as when I worked at Parliament, I was given an access card which opens some, but not all, doors. When you get lost (a frequent occurrence for me) you encounter offices with inhabitants who seem to have been forgotten to time. This was how I first found the biscuit tin office in Parliament. The other day I found the mindfulness room at the hospital which just stressed me out because I haven’t had any time to be mindful lately. Another thing to add to the list.  


At Parliament there is just one set of bells. These are the bells which call MPs to the debating chamber. The pace of activity on sitting days rises to a crescendo until the bells cease once MPs settle in for Question Time. Calm settles over the precinct and one can indulge in the mystery meat + salad special of the day at the Beehive café. Bells in the hospital are the orchestra to Parliament's soloist. It seems like the different tribes of the hospital eventually become attuned only to the frequency of the bells which toll for them. The nurses to the insistent bells clanging on the wards, the anaesthetists to the soft purring of the respiratory equipment and the house officers to the pagers with ring tones from the 90s.


Remember how I said I was giving up running? Clearly I was tempting fate because, as a student on a surgical attachment I've been running for the last three weeks. I used to trot along beside my MP on the way to the House too, delivering a last-minute printout of speaking points on that day’s legislation. I started this year worried that I wouldn't have time to exercise, now I'm absurdly grateful to have an opportunity to sit down. I’m writing this column while I’m stuck in traffic driving home because it’s the only spare time I’ve got. (Just kidding).

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