Just off work at UCI Medical Center, a bleary-eyed Gina Angiola stood before a small crowd Thursday afternoon and told her horror story about falling asleep at the wheel while driving home one night after a typical 36-hour work shift.
"I was very, very fortunate I was able to walk away from that accident," said Angiola, a medical student.
Angiola and about a dozen other students, residents and interns staged their third-annual sleep-in at the medical center Thursday, protesting what they called "inhuman" 100-hour work weeks. They also called for support of proposed state legislation that would regulate work hours in the medical profession.
Many of the protesters were medical students, hoping the system will be changed by the time they become residents. They said they are worried about their own health and safety. But they also said they are concerned about patients who may not receive proper care from a disgruntled, exhausted resident who is working on adrenaline and caffeine during an average 36-hour shift.
"I'm used to staying up, and I can always sleep here afterward, but it's patient safety" that's important, said David Marshak, a third-year medical student. "It's the little things . . . that you have to catch."
Miguel Hernandez, another student, said the long shifts also make it difficult to keep up with the workload at medical school, putting even more pressure on an already strained situation.
"It's kind of hypocritical that in the health profession we're always telling people to take care of themselves, and then the people higher up are telling us to work these hours because that's what they did," he said.
An official from the medical center said 14 of the 16 departments at the hospital are in compliance with guidelines from the American Assn. of Medical Schools that suggest residents work a maximum of 80 hours per week.
Nancy Koehring, house staff coordinator for the medical center, also said the hospital administration is opposed to state legislation mandating limits on work hours.
"We are concerned about all of them, (but) we are not in favor of the legislation," she said.
The protesting medical students toted signs reading, "Human Hours Make Human Doctors" and buttons spouting, "Long Hours are Bad Medicine." Then they staged a silent sleep-in by sitting on bed sheets for a few minutes in symbolic rest.
Organized by the California Assn. of Interns and Residents, the statewide protest took place at hospitals throughout California that employ students and interns.
This is the first year the group has had specific legislation to promote, said Richard Kozak, co-president of the residents' association at UCI Medical Center. The measure, AB 3203, has passed the state Assembly and is scheduled to go before the senate later this month.
Last summer, New York became the first state to regulate residents' working hours.