Trying to figure out what “call” means

When my weekend came to an end

A patient off we did send

With findings so rare

It gave us a scare

And help we needed to mend. 


Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to traveling and adventures in temporary positions. Assignments in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska have followed.  I finished my most recent assignment in Clarinda on May 18.  Right now I’m in northern British Columbia, getting a first-hand look at the Canadian system. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.


People can use the same word and mean different things, different words to mean the same thing, or even the same word in different contexts to mean different things.

Doctors use the term “call” when talking about coverage after hours and on weekends, but what does that word “call” really mean?

In Utgqiavik, the town formerly known as Barrow, it never meant anything other than 12 hours. I have been places where holiday call meant ten times that.  Depending on the location, weekend call might start on Friday or Saturday morning.  Or it could include staffing a Saturday clinic.  Sometimes it meant ER coverage only.  For a couple of decades I had to field calls from nursing homes, patients, ERs and hospital inpatient units as well as obstetrical duties.  For one former employer, if I drew the duty, I could count on sprinting between hospitals to admit patients till midnight, and a minimum of one phone call every 45 minutes requiring critical decision-making.

In New Zealand, when I worked for a North Island outfit, “call” meant staying overnight in the clinic.

On one particularly memorable assignment, it meant nothing other than having my name on a calendar slot. I had protested the marginal cell coverage at my dwelling.  Administration told me not to worry, in the event of a disaster the Sheriff knew where he could find me.

I write this while on weekend call. Sunday morning dawned very early and very clear.

During my 23 years in private practice, the docs wouldn’t talk about how the weekend went until afterwards. The same superstitious factors leading to that custom led to the many Emergency Rooms that banned the “Q word” (quiet).

What does weekend call mean here? Starts at 8:00AM Friday, ends at 8:00AM Monday, followed by a day off.

Now post call, I can say I cared for 3 people who, for one reason or another, didn’t have a chart in the local electronic Medical Record. I never cared for more than 12 people in one 24 hour period.  Several times, on the verge of leaving for the apartment, I asked people on the way in if they had come for emergency services.

At the end, a patient arrived with an extremely rare problem, so serious I called a colleague for help, and ended up riding in the ambulance to the medical center.


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