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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Officially Unemployed

When I talked to my dad about my resignation, it was difficult to bear the disappointment in his voice when he said:

“So, what, you’re officially unemployed now are you?”

I hit all kinds of low when I took myself along to the Job Centre before Christmas to register as unemployed. It was my fiancé’s idea – he did it when he graduated until he found his first job, and didn’t see any shame in it.

“You might as well try it,” he said, “You might not get the allowance anyway because you left voluntarily, but it will be a new experience for you.”

So I went along with some reluctance. It was so strange. As I went through the doors, narrowly escaping a dubious-looking guy at the front door who was attempting to sign people up for something, I felt an extreme sense of shame. It’s hard for me to write about it now, in fact. All my hard work and good grades had come to this.

I took a seat inside and waited to be called. They were running late by quite some time, so I had a good opportunity to look around at my fellow claimants. I live in a fairly run-down part of London, so I wasn’t surprised that many of them looked unkempt and down-trodden. We all kept our heads down and avoided eye-contact. This wasn’t a situation that encouraged chit-chat. A loud argument broke out between a claimant and an irate employee nearby. It seemed he hadn’t brought any paperwork at all with him and expected her to simply believe he was who he said he was.

My name was finally called. My assessor was a Muslim lady who did a double take when she looked at my application. She was (quite rightly) astounded that I was a qualified doctor. Why on earth was I here?

“What happened?” she cried.

I began to speak, and as I did, I think I was more honest than I have been with anyone for a long time. I told her how I simply couldn’t face going in anymore. I told her about my illness and how it knocked me. I told her about the anxiety I felt about working as a doctor. As I spoke, the reality of how little I valued myself began to sink in. I felt completely pathetic – a broken woman – crawling along, a shell of her former self. Without Medicine I felt totally worthless.

Her eyes softened as she listened to my story. She then talked me through my options, and told me about the process of claiming the benefit. She said we would need to meet at least once or twice a week, and that I would need to keep a log book, and how I would need to prove that I was trying to get work by signing on to a specific forum and spending 35 hours a week actively looking for work. It felt very demeaning and paternalistic, like I was a prisoner on parole.

At the end of our meeting, she noticed it was my birthday the next day, and asked me if I was doing anything nice. I told her I didn’t really feel like there was much to celebrate this year.

“Oh, don’t say that,” she said, kindly, “Sometimes when thing like this happen, it works out for the better in the end.”

She told me about how she had trained and worked as a dental hygienist many years ago, but something happened that made it impossible for her to practice.

“At the time I thought it was a disaster, but now I realise it worked out for the best. My nephew is quite seriously unwell and is often admitted to hospital, but my brother doesn’t have the time to look after him because he’s a GP. There’s no one else but me who can be there to pick him up from school when he’s ill, or sit with him for hours in A&E. Some of my family still say it would be better for me to go back to my old job, because it’s a better career, but sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture.”

She told me to go out with my friends for my birthday and have a good time. Despite my desperate state, she saw someone deserving of a celebration, and I will never forget that. The kindness of a stranger can be incredibly touching, and for a moment I had a weird feeling that I was meant to meet this good lady, that there was a reason it was she who saw me that day.

As I walked out of that building, once again dodging the guy with the clipboard, I knew I would not be coming back. I realised that behaving like the pathetic and helpless person I felt I was only propagated the idea, and I was better than this! In some bizarre way, I was living up to the new expectations that were placed upon me: weak, dependant and needy. Other people had given up on me, so now I had too.

I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore. From now on, I was going to define myself by what I knew to be true. Regardless of whether I would be approved for unemployment benefit or not, I resolved to withdraw my application, and not to take a penny. (Just as well, really, because I was not approved!)

When I got home, I sent off my paperwork to the locum agency. Previously I’d felt incredibly anxious and scared about walking into a hospital again, so I kept putting off applying for locum work. I guess I still feel a bit anxious, but I no longer feel crippled by it. My fiancé laughed when I told him about my change of heart.

“Haha! It’s because I’ve shown you the alternative!” he said, referring to the process of claiming benefits.

I stuck my tongue out at him, and denied it, but he was right. By making me do this, he has shown me a very alternative way of thinking. An alternative where, instead of thinking about what I can’t do, I think about what I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting Rock Bottom – apparently you bounce

rock bottom

It’s been two weeks since I stopped working. Two weeks sober. What a fortnight I have had…

When I woke up the next day at 8am instead of 6am and had nowhere to be, it felt delicious. The hours of the day stretched out before me, with waves of potential, and to be honest, all I really wanted was to have a break for a bit. I knew I would need time to process leaving Medicine. I didn’t quite anticipate the size of the grief reaction that was about to hit me.

The following Friday, I took myself down to Russell Square where the Professional Support Unit is based. I called them before I left my last job on the advice of the Dean and I really can’t recommend them enough for any doctor in training (foundation or speciality) who is in trouble. They provide all sort of help, from confidential mental health support to career coaching. When I called I had a really interesting conversation with a lady who turned out to be herself a creative – she is a freelance screenwriter who also works on a freelance basis for the Professional Support Unit. They allocated her to be my mentor, I suppose because of our common interest in writing.

We sat down together in a little room with the sunlight streaming in, and we talked. She asked me about my strengths, my likes, my dislikes and my values. And do you know, I found it so hard to articulate those things. After all that communications training, and despite my own quadrilingual tongue, I could not think of a word to say for myself. I panicked internally; how the hell was I going to perform in future interviews if the answer to “what are your strengths?” was silence?

I can’t really say I’ve ever thought much about any of those things. My strength was always my ability to pass exams or ARCPs, my values were insignificant because I was already doing something of such great value, and as for my likes and dislikes, that conversation mainly revolved around the choice between doing medicine or surgery, or between being a hospital doctor or a GP.

My mentor (I will call her ‘Jane’ for the purposes of this) then tried a different tack. She asked me to describe different experiences in my life. She got me to talk about the time I did some voluntary work in West Nepal, and suddenly, talking became a whole lot easier. I could actually appreciate the fact that turning up in the middle of nowhere in an unknown country was pretty brave. I could see that, after being told I was going to be an English teacher but then when I got there, they needed me to be an Art teacher for deaf young people and Dance teacher for street kids, I needed a great deal of adaptability and quick thinking to provide that.

“You’re a storyteller,” Jane told me, “You find it easier to talk about yourself through the medium of stories.”

Deep down, I’ve always known this. I novelise everything because it makes it easier for me to understand and therefore easier to cope with the difficult things in life. I didn’t realise this was a good interview technique.

She gave me some homework to do and I left feeling pretty positive. I realised that now was the perfect time to get to know myself a little better – not with a view to becoming self-centred, but more with the aim to appreciate what’s there already and what isn’t, and to have confidence in my strengths while appreciating my weaknesses. I started to look at my CV, which is very medic-orientated, and tried to see how I could change it to make sense to non-clinical people.

Then the doubt set in.

One day last week, my dad called me up with the express desire to talk about my career. What am I doing now? I’m just lying around at home? Officially unemployed. After all that work, I’m unemployed. So how am I managing financially? Oh, I’m using my savings? Well that’s not very sensible, is it? Am I just going to be a housewife now? Am I going to rely on my fiancé for everything now?

It was so distressing that I couldn’t carry on with the conversation. The idea that no longer being a doctor meant I could only ever be a housewife was ringing in my ears, and I was crying. I tried to rally myself: ‘I will find a job. It might even be a well-paid one, who knows? I will earn my own money and be a useful member of society.’ But it was no use, because when you’re faced with people around you who are baffled by your choices:

“I just don’t understand why you didn’t finish F2! Even if you didn’t want to continue being a doctor in the future, why didn’t you finish F2? It’s bad not to complete things. When you start something, you should finish it. You only had 4 months to go! What are your reasons? What’s your plan?”

These are reasonable questions to ask, and I know the people ask them are just worried about me and wan the best for me, but I find it hard to reveal my real reasons because I fear they won’t be taken seriously. I left because my heart was telling me to, and my only definite plan at the moment is to finish my novel while somehow finding my way into the right career. Such delicate and vague ideas are too easily quashed before they blossom, so I protect them from the storm around me by keeping them to myself.

People tell me that I’m just too romantic. I’m just a dreamer. A friend of mine told me all the people she knew who had tried to do something different and had ended up crawling back to their original profession with tails between legs, but she also told me that even if I manage to get another job, it will never make up for the fact that I didn’t finish my F2, because this is the biggest mistake of my life and I will regret it.

It makes me feel panicky just recalling these conversations. I feel like a small child who had done something very bad and was now being scolded, but it was worse, because I didn’t have the protection of being a small child. I am an adult, supposed to be successful, supposed to be self-sufficient, but all I am is one great big failure.

There it was. That word. Failure.

It’s surprisingly easy to go from niggling doubts at the back of your mind to full-blown depression. It’s a well-trodden path for me, so I know the way down pretty well, and down I went. I felt completely and utterly worthless. The weight of my mistakes and my decisions weighed heavily upon me, and I just couldn’t see how I was of any use or benefit to anyone in this world. I was only a burden on my parents, on my fiancé and all my friends. I was so low and so anxious that I couldn’t even bear the thought of locuming! What was the point of continuing? What the hell was the point of me?

Thankfully, the way back up is also a well-trodden path for me, and what I have found is, when you feel that way, you internalise everything. Paradoxically, you do become self-centred, caught in a loop of negative feedback with you in the middle of it. You break that when you connect with other people, and specifically when you help other people.

On my birthday last Friday, I went to look after my friend, who recently was admitted to hospital, and was coming home to an empty house, as her husband was away in Sri Lanka. I made her lunch and did some jobs for her, and helping her made me feel like a good person again, and she helped me by listening to me and comforting me.

I had just come back from running some errands for her when I noticed some books on her bookshelf. They were her husband’s books about the history of Sri Lanka, written during the 1800s. I could hardly believe my luck! My novel is historically based on the British colonisation of Sri Lanka and here in front of me were books documenting that very period! I asked her if I could borrow them.

I am now sitting on my sofa at home, exactly where I was a week ago, when I was so paralysed by fear and doubt that I felt unequal to everything, but now I have a book in my hand. I’m reading two others at the same time. Researching this topic is exciting! It’s actually fascinating to get a glimpse of what happened and how people lived in those days. My hand alternates between pens and highlighters and I’m brainstorming about how to include all this history in my story. The time passes quickly and I am in my element.

Things aren’t completely OK yet, but this enthusiasm is infinitely better than the despair I felt last week. I still feel really concerned that people will think I’m just bumming around and sapping resources, but I’m beginning to see that worrying myself into a frenzy is just about the perfect way of becoming the very thing I’m afraid of. I am not a failure. As for being accused of being a ‘romantic’ – that’s absolutely correct. Count me with the dreamers, and watch me make a career out of it.