|25 Nov 2021|
I left SWPS in 2008, apprehensive about leaving the familiarity of school but excited to study medicine at University College London. To be a doctor had been my ambition from a young age.
Undaunted by warnings about the length of training, number of exams and pressure of the job, I completed six years at UCL, finally graduating in 2014. The first “pre-clinical” years of university were a seemingly endless cycle of lectures, library, and exams, at a pace and in quantities unlike anything I had experienced before. Those first stages were undoubtedly challenging, but I felt more content as my student hospital placements began. After many years of theory and principles, I finally felt more like a doctor, trying to put what I had learnt into practice.
In 2014, I started my first job as Dr Alderman, in a hospital I had known well as a medical student. I was well supported by enthusiastic senior clinicians, had no exams (at least for a while), and a salary (novel after six years of student-hood) – what could be better? Subsequent posts had a great deal to live up to, and with increasing responsibility, more taxing rotas and frequent moves to unfamiliar workplaces, not all my postgraduate medical training has been so enjoyable.
Having completed four years of general medical training across various specialties, punctuated by postgraduate exams, I applied for higher training in palliative medicine (a discipline that’s about optimizing quality of life and reducing suffering among people with serious illnesses) and I’ve been working in this specialty since 2018. Up until then I, like many
others, had followed a relatively relentless path, utterly fixated on moving from each stage of training to the next. I decided to take a detour.
In 2019, I successfully applied for a fixed term post as education fellow at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). My clinical role would be waiting for me when I returned, but my “completion of training” date for palliative medicine would be postponed. I would certainly advise my younger self to be in less of a rush to power through medical training; to make the most of the journey and embrace the experiences which present themselves, even if they are slightly off the beaten track.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic escalated, and I was redeployed to clinical practice in April 2020. It was a strange time: awful, unfamiliar, but marked by an inspiring camaraderie. A local private healthcare institution had made its facilities available to the NHS, in which my team was able to set up and run a palliative care unit. A remarkable example of collaboration and something I was privileged to support in the early stages of the pandemic. We cared for a wide range of patients with palliative care needs, including those requiring symptom control and nursing care for the last days or weeks of their lives.
Infection control measures limited hospital visiting significantly. Communicating (bad news, particularly) over the phone was exceptionally hard, but the almost universal courtesy, resilience and gratitude of patients and their loved ones in the face of such unprecedented challenges is something I will never forget.
At first hand, and from speaking to colleagues, I am aware of some incredible examples of teamwork, education, collaboration and leadership within the health service in the wake of Covid-19. Despite the phenomenal challenges the workforce has faced, I hope there may be some positive changes to take away for the future.
In early 2021, I was able to recommence my education fellow role in earnest. I am involved in a wide range of educational projects to support physicians, from developing their communication, leadership and mentoring skills, to designing curricula, to training the trainers – improving teaching and assessment in the clinical workplace.
As with all other aspects of life, work at the RCP has adapted, with a rapid shift to virtual events and online resources. This has required a significant improvement in my tech skills as well as occasionally transforming my bedroom into a makeshift studio.
I will step back onto the well-trodden clinical training path later in the year, continuing my clinical rotations in palliative medicine. I’m looking forward to it, but I have no regrets about taking a slightly circuitous route!
There have been times when I have questioned my choice of a medical career. The demands on services are huge, and sometimes doing your best can still feel inadequate. Emotions run high at times, but while frustrated patients, angry relatives and clinical challenges can cause hurt and instil doubt, there are always individuals, experiences and situations which reinforce my love for the job and are a reminder that maybe it’s not so bad, after all.
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