The Secret Lives of Docs-In-Training

Ever wonder what hospital doctors do during their short breaks? Or how they manage to make it through a 28-hour shift?

Look no further than hospital call rooms.  During a recent trip to the Washington Hospital Center, Dr. Emil S. Oweis, a second-year resident, took me to a place where patients are not invited: resident quarters.  Even the hospital’s press person who joined us had never been to this part of the building.

We were like students invited to enter the mysterious world of the teacher’s lounge.

On the 6th floor of the building,  Oweis led us through a heavy door and down a narrow hallway flanked with the tiny windowless cubicles where residents hibernate. Each resident gets his or her own room when on call, complete with a cot, desk, computer and a phone to answer pages.  “You can actually do a lot of work in here,” he said.

It’s not luxurious, and for a tall doctor like Oweis, it can be a tight fit. But he said the small nook provides him with a quiet space to finish up his paperwork and even grab a quick nap. “On a good night, you might get a whole night’s sleep,” he says. “I do get into the call room at least once when I’m on call.”

A new set of rules for residents that goes into effect today “strongly” suggests that all residents practice “strategic napping” after 16 hours of continuous duty.   The Institute of Medicine’s suggested requirements for residents would have mandated a 5-hour nap during very long shifts. But the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education, the private nonprofit organization that put the new rules in place, decided that would be hard to enforce.

Listen to Oweis giving a tour of the resident quarters.

Lucky for Oweis, he sleeps easily. “I sleep whenever, wherever, as long as I want to sleep” – an important skill for a resident who has to grab a few hours whenever he can. But, he said he’s also a sound sleeper who can be hard to awaken.

In addition to the private call room space, doctors are provided a common resident lounge — which is where Oweis said he prefers to sleep.

It isn’t hard to understand why he would prefer the lounge, which is spacious and surrounded by large windows looking out over the Washington, D.C., skyline below. There’s a big-screen TV, vending machines, computers and couches to sleep on or schmooze with other residents.

While still fairly spare, compared to the Spartan call rooms the lounge has a little more of that Grey’s Anatomy-style glamour that, from the other side of the door, one might hope to find.

Read more about the new rules limiting first-year resident work hours.