Andrew Burd on acute email withdrawal

The departmental server went down in the period of time between leaving work on Friday evening and arriving home. In Hong Kong we are ahead of most of the world and so when our work hours are over, the west is just getting started. This is why the evening email check has become part of the daily routine.

But on Friday evening the server could not be accessed. The initial feeling is of a mild irritation; impatience. Perhaps a lot of others are trying to access the emails just now. Relax. Have a bath. Check later. But later still no access. Facebook was okay; gmail was okay; just the work email.

Oh well, off to bed. Saturday morning; early rise as usual and stumble into study to check the overnight activity. This is usually the late afternoon and evening emails from Europe but again the server could not be accessed. The irritation is more marked; a mild paranoia sets it; is it the server or is it me?

As with other workaholics, Saturday morning is a time to do rounds of special cases and then retreat to the office for some good quality academic and administrative time. My office computer is attached to the network and there will be no problem. But there is. Now this is not funny anymore. This is serious. I have work to do. I need to access my emails. I know there is something important to deal with. I have deadlines to meet but I don’t have the email addresses for sending the work.

This is frustrating. I go into the corridor and find unusually that several colleagues office doors are open. I go into the junior doctors’ room and ask if anyone is having problems accessing their emails. I am just a little worried about the possible answer. What if it is just me? What have I done? Why have I been shut out? Anxiety, mild anxiety, laps at my psychic shore but then; blessed relief. First one, then another, then all of those present confirm they cannot access the server.

Now the irritation is righteous. Now I am cross. I am being denied the right, the access, to email. I cannot work. Nothing can be done without email. I could say that I developed a tachycardia, started to feel dizzy, had hot flushes, cold sweats and developed a tremor, but I didn’t.

No, another slow transformation occurred. I very slowly began to realize that I was free. I couldn’t work. I was free to go home and forget about deadlines, messages, papers. I could take time off with a clear and untroubled conscience. And so Saturday afternoon and Sunday were gloriously liberated days.

Other off site colleagues began to filter queries via Facebook regarding the server status. One of my team member was planning a trip to Japan and had lost all the contact details. But generally as the realisation spread one sensed an undercurrent of a carnival type atmosphere.

On Monday morning our IT guys looked amazingly calm and the secretaries huddled in small groups chatting and laughing. The message slowly spread out. This was a big one and would take several days to fix and possibly, just possibly several days worth of emails may well have been irretrievably lost. Things are still not completely sorted yet; five days after the server crashed.

Never again am I going to take emails for granted. Well at least not for another week. And if anyone is waiting for me to reply to a recent email; please send it again, I probably never received it.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.

Conflict of interest: None.