I have what has been described as a ‘portfolio career’ - I’m not really sure what that means but I’d describe it as incredibly fortunate, privileged and ‘accidentally interesting’ perhaps.
I knew from the 4th year at medical school during our underwhelming 2-week public health module that I wanted to travel and work overseas in developing countries. At that time I had no idea how, where or when but the seed had been planted.
After completing my VTS and locuming for a year or so I headed off to Tobago for a few months as a volunteer with an environmental NGO called Coral Cay Conservation. I was the medical officer for a group of divers surveying the coral reefs around the island. This involved very little medicine but a lot of interesting project development roles and most importantly masses of diving (twice a day often) and a lot of rum consumption and beach parties. By this point I officially had the travel-bug.
From this island idyll I headed off to Uganda for a more serious role; volunteering for 2 years with a charity called Hospice Africa Uganda where I was the palliative care “consultant” for a rural hospice covering a vast geographical area including parts of the DRC, Tanzania & Rwanda as well as IDPs and swathes of remote south-western Uganda. I could go on forever about this job but now is not the time, if you are interested in hearing more about the work we did & my experiences there please don’t hesitate to contact me. I think this was the most formative and life-changing role I have ever done.
On the back of that I returned to the UK to do a masters in ‘public health in developing countries’ at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It was a tough year & we worked our butts off but I was amongst a fascinating and inspirational bunch (I think over 25 different countries were represented by the group) and the standard and content of the teaching and lectures was outstanding. I am still in-touch with many of these people and use their knowledge and contacts on a regular basis to help me out with all sorts of things.
Having the MPH has given me an entirely different perspective on medicine and I have used this in a number of different ways; in Cameroon I worked alongside Hospice Africa France developing and delivering the first African multi-disciplinary francophone palliative care course and then travelling around Cameroon following-up on some of the course students and helping them to advocate (in French!) for the development of a palliative care service in their setting, writing proposals and plans and lobbying the great and powerful. I also joined a THET palliative care mentoring project lead by Edinburgh University which took me to Zambia, I nearly visited Burkina Faso last year but was thwarted at the last minute by a coup and I have continued to visit Uganda to assist with the francophone course which is held there annually now.
I became a partner recently at a busy, deprived and very ethnically diverse practise in Pitsmoor, which may suggest that my wayward travelling days are over. Not so. I am fortunate enough to work with people who support my voluntary work and appreciate how important it is to me; in 2016 I am hoping to go to Bangladesh for 3 weeks with GP Update International and UNHCR to provide primary care teaching to medical staff in the refugee camps, as well as another trip to Uganda.
Volunteering is worthwhile and provides great opportunities and experiences but it is not kind to the bank balance, having a stable job here in the UK means that I can afford to continue with some of this work as well as developing my skills and fulfilling my ongoing educational needs as a UK GP. And in my spare time I try to stay in touch with as many of the people I have worked with, taught, mentored or visited in order to give continued support and encouragement. I provide medico-legal reports for a charity that do advocacy-work for asylum seekers. I’m a GP trainer. I am a respite foster carer. I’m a very fortunate GP.
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My journey here isn’t what you might call typical. I am 10 years older than most of the other students in my year. “That‘s practically a whole generation!” as one of my non-medic friends so kindly put it.
I didn’t choose to do chemistry A-Level when I selected my choices aged 16. I don’t think I had ever really considered a career in medicine at that time. It was only on my gap year, teaching English to under-privileged primary school children in Thailand that I began to think that was what I wanted to do.
My parents dutifully researched Medicine courses back in England but found that without chemistry A-Level there was really no way in. So I opted to go ahead with my plan to study Applied Communications at Newcastle University. I couldn’t possibly delay university by another two years to gain the all-important chemistry A-Level – I’d be ancient by the time I started if I did that! Little did I know…
I went on to have the best three years of my life in Newcastle and gained a first class degree for my efforts. I spent a year working in marketing in Australia following my degree and got a place on the BT Global Services graduate scheme on my return.
I was working in Internal Communications in London – I had a good job with great prospects. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life. What was I doing that was actually helping people? Was I really making a difference?
It was a throw-away comment from a friend of a friend that made me realise that re-training was an option. As stupid as it sounds retraining was a possibility!
I was accepted at Sheffield to the six-year pre-med course. This gives people without a science background the opportunity to study medicine by teaching all the chemistry, biology and physics you need in a pre-medical year at the start. For me this was ideal – it gave me a whole year to remember how to learn, revise and sit exams again.
I am now entering my fourth year as a student doctor. It hasn’t been easy – my mind isn’t as sponge-like as the younger students! However, what I lack in memory I make up for with enthusiasm. Every day I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity. I am making the most of every chance to learn and I know that this is my calling. I also feel being a little older gives me an advantage when it comes to relating to patients, consultants, nurses and well, everyone really.
Don’t get me wrong, it is hard not having a salary as all your friends outside medicine ascend through the ranks. And the pressure of juggling a family with work is looming almost as soon as I finish my foundation training. But, I absolutely love medicine and the challenges, variety and opportunities it presents and there isn’t anything I would rather be doing.