The Perks of Being a Doctor

A&E

When you grow up in a medical family, you notice how useful it is to know a doctor. Our friends come to my father constantly with their problems; whether it’s for advice, reading a scan or even organising a scan, knowing a brilliant Radiologist like my dad is an exceptional advantage.

My uncle is my dentist. I still feel a bit guilty when we go to his house for dinner and eat dessert in front of him.

Down the road are a married couple. She’s our family’s GP and he’s a paediatrician (and formerly my boss) at the hospital, but they’re old family friends as well. If ever I need advice, both their mobile numbers are on my phone. I don’t feel guilty about his because it means I won’t take up valuable patient slots at the practice. I guess it helps that I’m a doctor myself and tend to know what’s wrong with me already, but it’s just so practical to not have to make an appointment when I know that all I need is a quick chat. That appointment can be left for someone who really needs it.

I remember when I accidentally dropped my brother down the stairs when he was a baby (yes, it was an accident, although my brother now teases me mercilessly about how I did it on purpose, and declares that any mental deficit he suffers from is my fault). After my dad arranged head scan for him, and a paediatrician friend checked him over, they confirmed he was absolutely fine, so I now tell my brother that all his failings are his alone!

It’s not just family and friends. The cleaning lady, the postman, the handy man and even the gardener have all asked for assistance and advice, and my dad has always been very giving of his time to those in need. Cynics call it nepotism, and the GMC has very strict rules about how far you can go as a doctor to treat those you know personally, but I really think society has become so obsessed with this concept of impartiality that they’ve forgotten that it’s human nature to use what you know to help those around you.

Which brings me to what happened last night: over the last week or so, my fiancé has been complaining of a ‘spot’ on the back of his hand. It did just look like a regular spot, but it was hurting him a lot. As the days went by, the area became redder, more swollen and more painful. I treated it with all the over-the-counter things I could think of, but nothing seemed to be working. Last night, when he came home from work, it looked worse than it ever had before, and I was certain it was cellulitis. There was possibly also an abscess, and he needed antibiotics. My fiancé, however, has only just started a new job, and was irritated at the thought of having to take time off work so early. Making an appointment at his GP practice was always difficult, and he had no desire to wait around in a hospital for treatment.

I was at my wits end trying to figure out what to do. My home town was too far away to ask my GP or family for help. If I was still practising, I could so easily solve this problem! Even though you’re not allowed to prescribe for family members, it would have been simple enough to take him along to the hospital and get one of my colleagues to see him. Hell, I could have even lanced the damn abscess myself! As it was, I couldn’t even put a dressing on for him. When I was a doctor, I had access to all this stuff.

I really felt that I was failing him. And yet, I chose this. It’s not my job any more.

Luckily we had a hand from Dr Karen Morton, founder of online GP service Dr Morton’s. She  told my fiancé it was serious and needed immediate treatment. I’m so thankful she called, because I would never have been able to convince him to go to A&E otherwise!

11.30pm. Along we went to Whipps Cross. Funnily enough, we were in and out within an hour. I guess that, with the strike going on, people were staying away from A&E. We were seen by a lovely nurse who made us both laugh. She dressed and cleaned the hand, and gave us the antibiotics and painkillers he needed.

While we were in the waiting room, my fiancé asked me why I was upset. I told him how I felt; that I missed being a clinician. I was so frustrated that I knew exactly what to do and yet couldn’t make it happen. I felt like crying. Medicine was such a huge part of my identity, I didn’t know how to be without it – I didn’t feel like anything without it. I know this sounds melodramatic, but I was tired and frazzled, and seeing my fellow doctors strike earlier had stirred up a lot of emotions.

“Medicine’s not who you are, it’s just something you did for a bit,” my fiancé told me kindly, “You’re more than just a doctor, you know.”

I told him about a doctor I’d met that morning on the picket line of Guys and St Thomas’ hospital. I interviewed him for this blog and he told me about how he used to have anxiety attacks every time he came near the hospital. He pushed through it, however, and is now a paediatric trainee.

I remember that feeling. I remember feeling sick with fear before every shift. I remember having to coax myself out of bed in the morning, just to get up the courage to go to work. I remember the amount of wine I needed to get myself through a run of nightshifts. It wasn’t a healthy place to be, but I felt I had given up too early. Should I have just carried on, hoping one day it would finally be ok? Should I have, as some friends suggested, restarted my antidepressants, just so I could get through my training?

“What are you talking about?” said my fiancé, “You did something you hated for 8 years and now you think you didn’t give it enough of a chance? I never got to see you when you were a doctor. You were constantly tired, and always ill. We never knew where you were going to be from one year to the next, and we couldn’t plan anything in advance because you never knew your rota. You were grumpy and miserable, and you just weren’t you. It’s different, now you’ve stopped; I actually get to spend time with you.”

It was the first time my fiancé had ever told me honestly what it was really like for him when I was working. It dawned on me that maybe my inability to treat his cellulitis didn’t fail him as much as my former lifestyle had.

We walked out of Whipps Cross together, after a free appointment, with two boxes of free medication in our hands. The NHS really is amazing. I definitely took what I did as a doctor for granted – it was my job, after all – but it was incredible, and that’s why it’s so hard to walk away. But looking at the striking doctors from a distance, I can see things in a way that I couldn’t before: even after everything the NHS puts them through, doctors still continue to fight for it, and when you put it like that, their struggle is more poignant than ever.

 

Click here for an exclusive interview with a junior doctor on the picket line.

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So… what do you do?

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December is the prime time for this question, or versions thereof. With everyone getting together for Christmas and New Year, I knew I would be catching up with friends and relatives and meeting new people, so small talk would be abundant for a good two or three weeks. I have to admit, I was dreading it. I was afraid of their judgement and remarks. I suppose I was also afraid of how I would react to their reactions. I could hardly justify my situation to myself, so how could I justify it to others?

I have always taken it for granted that I could give people a satisfactory progress report. “I’m in year 13” turned into “I’m in year X at medical school,” which turned into “I’m working at such-and-such hospital.” The only variation to contend with was the inevitable follow up question: “Have you chosen your speciality yet?”

Traditionally, the responses I have given to these queries have depended largely on how I feel about the person asking them. With kindred spirits – the people I feel will really listen and might understand my point of view – I am honest, but mostly I’ve just been busy hiding my true feelings about it all these years, even from the people closest to me.

As Christmas loomed, everything seemed so complicated. What was I supposed to say when people asked me what I was doing now?

“I had a quarter-life crisis and quit my job with no plan B, so I’m now officially unemployed and relying on my savings and my fiancé to get by. I have no current certainty or prospects, and not much of an idea about what to do, except a vague plan to write a novel that I’m unjustifiably optimistic about.”

It sounded terrible. I almost wanted to avoid the festive parties altogether to save myself from this humiliating admission. I also felt bad for my parents – when people asked them how I was getting on, they would be having exactly the same problem.

Then, two things happened to me.

The first was deciding to locum after my little visit to the job centre. That gave me something solidly medical to say, and was a relief. “I’m locuming at the moment” is a brilliant answer for those you don’t really want to talk to, and who are just asking you for the sake of saying something. It’s satisfying for both parties and the perfect precursor for a swift exit line.

The other was this: at the start of December, in between dancing for joy and plunging into the depths of despair, I started job hunting on the Guardian website. I found an ad I was interested in for a managerial role in a charity, but being inexperienced with this sort of thing, I was doubtful. I worried that I didn’t meet the criteria in many of the job specifications, because a lot of them stated the necessity for formal qualifications or specific experience. But, as my fiancé told me, job specs are not hard and fast rules. They represent the ‘ideal’, and most companies would rather hire the closest match than wait for the perfect candidate. My career coach has also been helping me to realise the value of the skills and experiences I already have.

So I shot off my CV, not really believing anything would come of it. Then two weeks later, I got a call. The charity had said my application was certainly unusual, but they had loved it. They offered me a telephone interview, and after that, they offered me a formal interview. I’m going in for it next week. Whether or not I get the job in the end, it’s been such a boost for me just getting to interview.

It’s also nice to sing my own praises. It’s not something I got to do much in medicine – it was more about people assessing me. ARCPs are tick-boxing exercises and applying for clinical jobs requires more form-filling and exam-taking than knowledge of your true strengths, skills and weaknesses. It’s just the nature of the medical profession that everybody is presumed to have all the necessary skills for their level. As a result, the thought of doing a non-medical interview is scary. No longer can I rest on my laurels; I actually have to prove myself. It’s made me sit down and think about what I’m really good at, what suits me and what I really want – perhaps for the first time in my entire life.

As the Yuletide approached, I started to see my situation is a different light. Yes, there are things in my current situation that I don’t like, but there is also plenty of potential. This is a really exciting time for me, and I really need to give myself a break. It sounds cliché to ‘have faith in yourself’ and to ‘stay positive’ but these little things can be incredibly difficult to do. I still struggle sometimes, but I’m working my way towards another cliché where I see my glass as half full.

So now, when people ask ‘what are you doing now?’ I have an answer I’m proud of:

“Well, I’m planning to locum while transitioning into a new career. I’ve got an interview with a charity soon for a management role. In the meantime, I’m volunteering for Medic Footprints to help other doctors in their careers – a role that I got because the directors were impressed by an article about their conference on my personal blog. I’m also researching the British colonization of Asia to give historical accuracy to the novel I am currently writing.”

There. Sounds much better doesn’t it? And the best things are: it’s all true, and I can say it to everyone.

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Image from Malla.

Malla is a small business coach and expert at answering this question!