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PT on the Run

How Sick Is Too Sick?

Published January 29, 2014 5:52 PM by Michael Kelley

When I was a student, I did a clinical rotation at a children's hospital. Now anyone who has worked with kids before or even has kids of their own are well aware of the fact that kids can be, well, germy. Very, very germy. Needless to say, six weeks into that clinical rotation, my immune system finally gave in and I came down with strep. I hadn't had strep since I myself was but a wee lad, so it hit me pretty hard. I went to see the doctor and had to take a couple days off while on antibiotics. I would say I recovered nicely, but on my next clinical rotation, the strep came back and I had to be put on antibiotics again, this time triple the dosage.

Now that I've been working in a hospital, I often ask myself, "How is it that medical staff aren't sick more often?" I mean, of course we use preventative measures such as washing our hands and wearing gloves or other personal protective equipment, but honestly, those things aren't 100% effective. Are the immune systems of medical personnel somehow superior to those of the general population? Wishful thinking.

I bring this up because this morning, I called in sick to work. I think I either have laryngitis (which I had about two months ago and kept me out of work for close to a week) or just a sinus infection. Either way, I know the remedy is just lots of fluids and rest. I wonder though, when should I be expected to return to work? Do I go back when I think I can make it through an 8-hour day without being too miserable? Do I go back when I'm completely healthy again? Do I go back when my voice isn't cracking like a 12-year-old boy every time I try to talk?

Now I've pushed myself through some miserable days before. That second time I had strep throat on my clinical, I worked the entire day going through fevers and sweats one hour to chills and shivering the next. Where do I draw the line between my personal well-being and comfort level and my patients' health? I work in acute care where many patients already have compromised or weakened immune systems. A simple cold could lead to pneumonia, which quite frankly could kill a number of the elderly patients I normally treat. It's a drastic worst-case scenario, I know, but it could happen.

Then there's the whole human resources thing. At our hospital, we're allowed five sick occurrences in a rolling calendar year. An occurrence is considered an entire episode of sick days. So if I take three consecutive sick days, that's only one occurrence. After five occurrences, you get written up. Six occurrences is another write up. And if I'm not mistaken, seven occurrences is grounds for termination. Sometimes, you just can't help getting sick. I think I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle. I work out five times a week, I eat healthy etc., but I also work in a hospital, which by definition is full of sick people, so my exposure level is pretty high.

What do you think? How sick do you have to be to call in? And on the flipside, how healthy do you have to be to go back to work? Where do you draw your line between being a healthy therapist and putting your patients at risk of catching whatever you have?

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I also want to mention that throughout the month of February, fellow ADVANCE blogger Lisa Mueller and I are going to experiment with "Dueling Blogs!" We have selected a few topics that are "trending" in the PT world right now and Lisa is going to argue one side of the topic while I argue an opposing side. Feel free to comment on either one of our blogs with your own thoughts, questions or ideas. Thanks!

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