Being a Trainee and a Chair during COVID-19

Sally El-Ghazali

It has been an odd few months…  when I initially planned to write this blog it I planned to write about something somewhat different – but then along came COVID-19…

As a dual anaesthesia and ICM trainee, I didn’t think navigating life through a pandemic was what was in store for my final year of training. It has been tough, and I know it has been tough on so many people. Not only was the clinical workload quite overwhelming, made worse with hours in hot PPE, but also it was emotionally draining. At the start of the pandemic, everything was COVID related – if I wasn’t at work, I was either thinking about it, or talking about it. I therefore had an intense amount of guilt for neglecting family, friends and anything non-COVID related and this included my responsibilities as chair of the Association of Anaesthetists Trainee Committee.

This is my second and final year as chair of the Trainee Committee and if I thought last year was a challenge, leading the committee whilst undertaking my FFICM exam, this has surpassed that. I don’t know many people who found themselves in this situation, chairing a Trainee Committee during a pandemic to ask their advice about how to best manage it. I have to admit – at times it has not been easy finding the time to commit, energy to inspire and motivation to push ideas forward. Trainees, including myself and my colleagues on the Trainee Committee, have had to work through surge rotas, difficult clinical conditions, whilst trying to remember the importance of rest and self-care and recognise and avoid burnout.

The temptation was to neglect anything other than clinical work, myself and members of the Trainee Committee recognised we still had responsibilities to our trainee members. Not only were they going through a similar experience, but also some of our colleagues were highly affected by changes to ST3 recruitment, shielding and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We had to find ways to support our trainee members through all this whilst adapting to working in a very different way as a committee.

We had two Trainee Committee meetings during the height of the  pandemic – one in March and one in July. Both of which were virtual – we actually hadn’t seen each other face to face as a committee since December 2019. There are many challenges to chairing a virtual meeting, the unpredictability of internet connections, the random screen freezing, the inadvertent muting whilst talking, the whole “can you hear me?” before almost all comments and also feeling like you’re talking to yourself. It is difficult to read the virtual room when having discussions and although you can see the mini tiles of faces on your laptop, it still isn’t the same. Trying to ensure everyone has a chance to speak and I did worry whether I was curtailing conversations or discussions, that would have flowed so much more easily if we were all in the same room.  Time management during these meetings – yet another challenge – discussions take longer, keeping up with who was next in line to make a comment or ask a question, as well as making notes and keep up with the chat was like patting my head and trying to rub my tummy at the same time.

I was “lucky” I had a trial run at chairing a virtual meeting last September 2019 when the Association Headquarters unexpectedly flooded and last minute we moved the meeting online. There were definitely teething issues at the start but the technical aspects of running a virtual meeting, like with most challenges has become easier and more cohesive with practice. The last Trainee Committee meeting in July went well with good involvement and input with robust discussions and action points to take away and only(!) overran by 30mins.

The biggest challenge I personally found was the lack of face to face and human interaction – I did miss meeting my colleagues and friends on the Trainee Committee. We are scattered all over the UK and Ireland and so I am used to an element of virtual and online working through emails, and WhatsApp – but not to this extent…

I am proud of what we were able to do as a committee during this difficult period. We wrote statements, we produced infographics, we produced educational resources, we wrote articles, we were involved in and hosted our own webinars and we commissioned a whole edition of Anaesthesia News to trainee pay related issues.  Individually everyone has worked tirelessly within their own departments as well as having to manage lift,  and therefore I am in awe that everyone still found the energy to commit time to the Trainee Committee. During this time we have had members of the committee celebrate finishing training, starting consultant jobs and those welcoming babies to the world. We have also supported those who had weddings postponed, those who have been ill, those who worried about loved ones, those who had to resort to a tipple of something after home schooling. But hey – that’s what families do right?

I am honoured to have been chair of the Trainee Committee and I genuinely could not have done it without the support and hard work of my committee family. I was expecting to officially step down in July 2020 and hand over chairing responsibilities during the Trainee Conference. However, the pandemic has derailed and changed these plans. I will now be stepping down in September and handing over the reins virtually which is an unexpected and slightly bittersweet way to end my tenure. I am sad to be leaving the committee especially under these circumstances and will be odd not saying goodbye to the committee in person. I know I leave it in the best possible hands and the Trainee Committee will continue to go from strength the strength. However, it will be emotional to not have closure to my 6-year stint as part of this amazing team.

This is just my experience as chair and maybe others who are leading trainee committees may describe a different account. However, regardless of the difficulties I have faced I have loved every moment. It has been one of the most rewarding experience. I have learnt lots and hope everything we have achieved has been of benefit to our trainee colleagues. Here is hoping to some restoration of normality soon and for all of us to consider our own mental and physical wellbeing as well as those around us.

Sally is a dual anaesthetic and intensive care trainee in London. She graduated from UCL Medical School in 2010 before starting her core anaesthetic training in the Northern deanery of anaesthesia in 2012 and subsequently taking up a specialty registrar training post in August 2014 within the Imperial School of Anaesthesia. In February 2018, she joined the intensive care training scheme in London.

In 2014, Sally was elected as a member of the Group of Anaesthetists in Training Committee following a national ballot to represent the interests and wellbeing of the anaesthetic trainees nationally. She was subsequently selected as honorary secretary of the committee in 2016 and took on the role of chair of the now rebranded Association of Anaesthetists Trainee Committee between 2018 and 2020.

Sally’s other interests outside clinical medicine include wellbeing and medical education and has since completed a formal medical education certificate and become a Member of the Academy of Medical Educators.