60 seconds with Dr Helen McKenna

11 October 2018

Tell us a bit about your day job?

As an anaesthetist I ‘put people to sleep’ so that they can undergo operations. We’re then responsible for life support during surgery and support recovery afterward.  We also use these skills to help look after the sickest patients in the hospital, both during emergency situations on the ward and on the intensive care unit (ICU).

You were recently interviewed by the BBC about shift working – where did your interest in this area come from?

Almost every member of staff in the hospital works or has worked, night shifts. Night shifts affect our performance and well-being, but it wasn’t until I began researching the area that I realised how it impacts on so many aspects of health, from diabetes to cancer. The changes to the body clock are happening in many of our patients, as they struggle to sleep in the busy hospital environment, and that this can impair their recovery too.

What are your top tips for coping with shift work?

Get as much sleep as you can beforehand and two things you can do are drinking caffeine and taking a short nap. The caffeine will take 45 minutes to work – but will last for up to six hours. Also, build in safety checks to reduce the risk of errors during critical tasks. 

You’re part of a research team in the intensive care unit (ICU), why is research so important?

If we can better understand how the human body works during extreme stress, and how it responds to our treatments, we will be able to improve survival and the long-term health of our sickest patients.

What are the biggest research questions facing your team?

We are particularly interested in discovering how mitochondria (the tiny power stations that make all of the energy in our cells) respond to the stress of surgery and critical illness, and how they influence recovery. 

Image: Back row (from left to right): Dan Martin, Helen McKenna, Helder Filipe, Christine Eastgate Front row (from left to right): Jia Stevens, Margaret McNeil, Gretchelle Asis.