As I said yesterday, I’m doing a story skills workshop so stories is what you’re going to get from me at the moment. Today I wanted to share a story about a moment that really shaped my professional life. It confronted me in multiple ways, and was a life defining moment that I hope I never have to repeat.
I made the front page of our city newspaper once. Not that they used my name. I was “The nervous novice” they referred to.
I wasn’t really a nervous novice. I had been working at that hospital for a few years and was in a senior role within the department. That was the reason I was called upon to provide cover when the long-term (like 25 years long term) oncology pharmacist took long service leave. Nobody else would do it.
She taught me the processes and how to make sure the kids got the right chemo at the right time. The diary, the clunky old computer program (basically a glorified calculator), the aseptic suite. Over weeks or months I was able to demonstrate my proficiency and was trusted to keep things tickling while she went on holidays.
I came to realise what I’m sure many people realise when they take over a job from someone who has been working in isolation- things that make sense to them don’t necessarily make sense to others. They keep a lot of important information in their head, resulting in ambiguity for the poor sucker trying to keep things ticking over as usual (aka me). There were processes, sure, but they were designed in a way to make her indispensable. This wasn’t exactly sustainable or safe.
I must have done a good enough job because a few months later I was once again called upon to provide cover when she retired. I was entrusted to provide support for her newly inducted replacement, who incidentally had even less experience in oncology than I did.
I did as requested and kept things ticking. Figuring things out as I went along. Until I found something that I couldn’t figure out. There was an irreconcilable difference between the computer generated batch sheet and the computer generated label for one of the chemotherapy agents. This meant we either prepared the correct amount of drug with the wrong label, or the correct label on an incorrect amount of drug. This is not good for any drug. It’s especially not good for a chemotherapy drug.
I didn’t know what to do with this problem. I first took it to my colleague who had been in her role for a matter of weeks. She wasn’t sure. I then went to my manager. I explained that either I had lost my ability to do basic maths or there was a systematic error occurring with this chemo drug. He confirmed that my understanding of ratios was still correct. Oh shit. What did this mean?
It meant a full enquiry of every time we had ever prepared that drug. It meant a full audit of all of our processes and documentation relating to chemotherapy. It meant long days and evenings working in an area that I was only supposed to be providing short term cover to. It meant a bunch of people pissed off that we had brought this error into the spotlight and created so much work. It meant a news story that cast aside the error as a serendipitous discovery made by a nervous novice.
It meant I never viewed the term ‘indispensable’ the same way in healthcare again, regardless of how much I enjoyed reading Linchpin by Seth Godin.