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Gold, incentives and meh

Adjusting to widowhood – and GP life back in the UK

Dr Kate Harding

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It is nearly two years since my family and I touched down in Auckland, New Zealand, ready to embrace our new life as immigrants there.

We had been tempted to leave behind our life in Britain by the promise of beachside living, a better climate, and a more relaxed work environment. My late husband, Richard, had secured a job as a consultant anaesthetist and intensivist at Whangarei hospital, and I had a job to go to in a thriving general practice in the same city, as well as the hope of picking up some hospice work in due course.

What we did not foresee was the complaint made to the GMC about Richard that would throw a grenade into our life when we opened the letter that every doctor dreads on Christmas Day 2015, just as we had packed the last of our belongings into a container bound for New Zealand, sold our house, and notified our children’s school that they would be leaving shortly.

A massive shadow was immediately cast over our lives. Despite the complaint being relatively minor, and despite it being thrown out in due course – as everyone around Richard fully expected it to be – its timing was devastating. It caused us stress for months on end, as we crammed ourselves into holiday accommodation, arranged for our jobs to be returned to us, put our children back into their school. As time dragged on, we decided to forge ahead with our emigration plans, and finally departed on my work visa, with Richard forced to have two months off while his paperwork was processed.

I did not foresee this could happen to our close-knit, happy family

While this sounds great, in many ways – eight weeks of enforced holiday, on Northland’s pristine beaches – the toll it took on Richard was huge. After five months of anxiety, he was now thrust into his new life Down Under with no structure to his day, or colleagues to banter with, or patients to take care of, and with an abundance of time on his hands in which to ruminate.

Eventually, life got easier; Rich started work, we moved into a fabulous rental with landlords who embraced our pets and we met friends who will be in my life forever, such was the warmth with which they welcomed us. We lived on a peninsula with a beach moments away, looking out towards Mount Manaia, with an island which we could walk to at low tide, and a grassy area by the water where we kept kayaks; my husband acquired a fishing boat and friends to teach him how to use it.

But by now Richard had developed the symptoms of depression. He had been ill with it once before, over 20 years earlier. With treatment, his depression lifted, and, for a time, life was great, by the beach. And then his illness returned.

I won’t dwell on the details here, but the long and short of it is, he died. He was ill, the drugs didn’t work this time, he was an anaesthetist with easy access to lethal drugs and he had an impulsive streak.

If I look at his death as a significant event of the sort that we reflect on in clinical practice, then I see how multi-factorial it was: GMC complaint, plus a move across the globe, a new job, the loss of family and close friends, insomnia from a more frequent on-call rota and heightened work-related anxiety as a sequela of the complaint, to name a few.

Added to this I see myself as one of the factors – I did not accurately assess his suicide risk as high. I failed to imagine this particular outcome. I did not foresee that this could happen to our family, our close-knit, happy family, our little unit of four.

And so, we are now a unit of three. We left Richie behind in New Zealand, or at least some of him – his ashes are scattered on three of his beloved Northland beaches.

I have returned to work here in the UK, at the hospice where I worked for five years before we left, and as a GP locum; my kids are back at their old schools.

I have had to remember how to operate EMISweb, Lexacom, Docman; I have had to say farewell to electronic referrals, easy email access to consultants for advice, and, most tragic of all, the little torches that fit inside speculum handles over there. (It was with a sinking heart that I adjusted my first wall-mounted desk lamp at the foot of the examination couch back in this country.)

I have a host of worries constantly accompanying me at all times. My children. My finances. Surviving general practice back in this country in the longer term. My new status as single parent and sole income generator. The loneliness of making every single decision, big or small (and they have mostly been big) by myself.

There was a suicide clause in our New Zealand life insurance policy, newly taken out. I have no choice but to roll up my sleeves and, in Rich’s phrase, ‘crack on’.

Time will tell whether I can do this; I will be honest in this blog, and keep you all posted. I am sick and tired of widowhood already, five months in, but every day I wake up and Richard is still dead, incomprehensibly; the only option is to get out of bed, and get on with life.

Dr Kate Harding is a locum GP and hospice doctor in Herefordshire

 

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Readers' comments (29)

  • Sorry for your loss...

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  • Cobblers

    Kate you were his wife not his doctor. Do not blame yourself.

    Thinking of you and your 'unit'. Keep well.

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  • Try and focus on each day and be compassionate to yourself i.e. all the stuff that you'd intuitively advise a patient in a similar situation to do. You are helping others in your work which is what we all signed up for. Sadly, the job is getting more impossible by the day.

    I know of 2 families directly that have a very similar story.

    Be kind to yourself.

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  • This is one of the most moving articles I have ever read. I have now closed my door, taken my phone off the hook and decided to have a break for 30 minutes.

    I find like pretty intolerable at the moment and can identify strongly with
    Richard's decision. The pressure on us is great and escape is often impossible.
    That sense of feeling totally trapped with no hope of escape is very demoralising.

    I wish you well and assure you that you are not alone.

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  • Dear Kate,

    I wonder if you would be interested in a group to support survivors of doctor suicide. My son, an anaesthesia trainee, killed himself two years ago. I am working with Clare Gerada of the PHP to form such a group. Please contact me at robin.warshafsky@nhs.net. I am also a GP and found return to medical practice difficult as you described in the Observer article the other month. I think of you since I read it. With all best wishes and all my support, Robin

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  • I am sorry for your loss. The toll the GMC has on doctors is very real. I wish you well.

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  • My thoughts are with you and your family. With every best wish for the future,

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  • Truely moving and shocking. Wishing you and your children a happier future.

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  • Clare Gerada is the best thisng ever invented for sick doctors, and the concept of the new group sounds like something we should all support.

    i hope that if you contact it it will provide support.

    All wounds heal eventually, but the scars serve as reminders.

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  • National Hopeless Service

    I’ve spent most of today externally and internally moaning about the stresses of the job. But then I read your article. My life is simple in comparison to all the complexities and unimaginable stresses that you have been through. Holding yourself together and a family together under such circumstances is beyond my understanding. You probably don’t want to be a super-woman or feel like a super-woman but you are.

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  • Deepest condolences and best wishes for your future. No matter how well we know someone, we can never know entirely what their private thoughts might be. I'm full of admiration for your bravery at sharing your story.

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  • You are an amazing lady.
    I wish you and your children well. You just have to carry on for you and then. Things will get better but not in a straight line.
    Suicide is devastating. Hard, very hard, to make sense of it.

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  • Thank you for sharing this Kate. I'd echo the sentiments of the other posts and wish you and your family all the best for the future.

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  • Tom Caldwell

    I knew Richard as a consultant in Hereford when I was an anaesthetic middle grade there. He seemed a nice fella. My own depression though a continuing companion is thankfully now well controlled.

    I remember too well how the mind ill with the horror of severe depression can see so clearly (but so wrongly) that removing yourself is the best and kindest thing for everyone around you. I was lucky that for me the treatments worked.

    I know that general practice was the strongest driving force in worsening my depression, I cannot imagine how horrific a GMC letter would have been at that time.

    I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you and your family find the ways to crack on. X

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  • So very sorry for your loss. Hope you can find a way to stay strong.

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  • When I read this yesterday I was too touched to be able to write anything. You are so brave to share this with us. I do hope you stay strong and carry on, you'll find solace in the patients you help.
    So very sorry for your loss, my sincere condolences to you and your children.

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  • So sorry for your loss - sending my best wishes to you and your family

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  • Kate I read your article in the Gaurdian recently and it bought me to tears, it hit very hard and I feel for your loss. I had a similar situation, 2 years ago. A letter from the GMC on Christmas Eve just as all my family had arrived for the Holiday. It was like a huge hole opened up and a feeling of free fall anxiety a feeling of primitive fear. It was hard to carry on, my family were very supportive and the case was eventually after 18 months closed with no action not even advice. During that period I was close to suicide and I can see how it could happen, the complaint process keeps hitting you in the face, you become more cautious loose confidence self doubt creeps in on all aspects of your life. Once the GMC case was closed the PAG at NHSE still wanted an action plan and this will finish soon, I have continued to work and am coping with it well I think now. Closing the GMC case was a big relief but it still stays with you. I am sure you did all you could to help your husband. Suicide is an impulsive action and I am sure you could not have stopped your husband. I sent your article to my PAG to show them the effects these investigations can have. Many good Doctors have committed Suicide while having a GMC investigation in the last 5 years . I truly hope you can rebuild your life and be kind to yourself as time rolls on. I wish you the very best for the future and I thank your for your article which has helped me deal with my own situation so much.

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  • Sorry to hear about your loss Kate, first in the Observer and now here. Appreciate you writing about it. Hope you get settled now.

    I emigrated to Auckland in 2014 but similarly couldn't work due to a GMC complaint. It is frustrating as you cannot do anything but wait for the glacial process to proceed whilst you are in Limbo and cannot work or do anything. I just had to do other non-work things to keep myself occupied whilst my wife worked. The complaint resolved with no action and I started work in 2015 but have moved out of Auckland now.

    It would be good to try and support each other when we emigrate as that first 2 years is a very vulnerable time before having a permanent address and settling into long term employment and long term friends and support. Just need to know where we all are. Maybe Doctors.net has a role here.

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  • Kate I am truely sorry for your loss.
    I experienced the GMC compliant system in the past , I thought about ending it all every single day during the painful process.
    If anyone out there in a similar situation please seek help.
    At the end of the day no one cares about you but your family.
    I honestly believe that the GMC has doctors blood on its hands.
    Kate I wish you all the best moving forward in your life.

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  • Why was comment removed?

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  • My mistake--not removed. Apologies.

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  • AlanAlmond

    I send you all the strength I can, thank you for sharing your story.

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  • Kate Harding

    I am so touched by your comments - thank you for taking the time to write them. I particularly sympathise with those of you who have also had to go through the hideous experience that is the GMC complaints procedure - and for much longer than Richard, in some cases. The problem is that the effects of such an experience last way beyond the closing of the case, as some of you know to your own personal cost! Rich's confidence in his clinical decisions was never the same again.
    I am managing my slightly odd combination of hospice and A&E work so far - and finding huge comfort in the wave of warmth and support that has enveloped me ever since I lost my husband. Circumstances keep pulling me back to general practice, a job I have been trying to escape for years! But the A&E model suits me, and perhaps provides me with a way of staying within the profession for a little longer...

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  • Jones the Tie

    Kate, I too read your article in The Observer and now your blog post. I can totally identify with Richard. Medicine attracts caring , sensitive and intelligent souls which the GMC has very little understanding of. We care deeply about our performance and our patients and complaints can destroy us. The GMC has no understanding as far as I can see and their Draconian approach is likely to worsen outcomes for patients not protect them.
    I am devastated to hear of your loss and gladdened to hear you trying to carry on as best you can. You need to be knighted as does Richard posthumously. Without folk such as you and Richard our NHS ceases to be and patients suffer. Just ask yourself 'What would Clem do?' when this soul destroying machine minces our compassionate colleagues. I'll sink a beer for Richard and your family at the weekend and my thoughts are with you. Thank you for bringing your tragic story to a wider audience.
    Dr Andy Jones, GP, Hereford

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  • Ildiko Spelt

    to 6:43 : I did never had a proper complaint (touch wood) ... but the way GP surgeries are doing nowadays robbing Peter to pay Pal made my accountant to delay some pension payments in order to pay wages... all was sorted in the end so we are ok with all the payments...but one staff who was made redundant made a complaint to the GMC about the pensions... in the mean time, I've retired and I work as a Locum ...from being single handed principal in a 8000 pt surgery..... OK, the GMC started this investigation and found nothing, now they are checking of anything else I would have been involved...When we had CQC around, there it was the thing with DMARDS monitoring...so we've got PAG on us for 3 years... we did a number of 30 cases analysis which all went well...They also had a problem with one "missed CXR" result which wasn't real...and no one could get to their brains to explain what was there... Anyway...GMC could not find fault where they were looking for, so now they asked NHSE who mentioned that CXR case ...I wasn't really involved with..... However as anyone can see, this is caution demoralisation, low self esteem, anxiety....I cannot breath well many times when patients are in my room...if anyone is hostile, my heart rate can go up to 150/min...hard to keep going on like this. I've retired early because of the nHS funding reasons...but I work as Locum at my own surgery....I am stressed out by everything: GMC investigation for nothing, immense workload, low morale because GMC despite knowing that I've done nothing wrong.... I am the only pilar in my family: mother of 85 v frail living w me, my old dog of 10 whom I do love to bits, one of my ex-tripplet sons living with me , great help, but himself still in need for some help... the other son getting married this year...and the memory of the 3-rd son who died at 7y of ALL in 1995....their father also died , in 2005.... I try to keep sane.... but if help is available, I'd take it xx

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  • Dear Kate, I am very sorry for your sad story.
    I been through a few things myself and just before getting really burn out miraculously I moved to Qatar 1 year ago. Now I work as a full time GP and having enough time to concentrate on myself and my family. I think a place of work such is Qatari maybe a good move, as we all are British doctors with British system , lifestyle, pay and job for a single mother is very well designed.cobtact me if you need more information.drannasharif@yahoo.co.uk

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  • Kate thank you for your honesty and bravery talking about Richard and the landscape life takes after a loved one so tragically takes their life

    Your article in the guardian has hugely resonated with a number of us training in Anaesthesia and Intensive care in my school (east midlands). Burnout and it's consequences is a subject that is finally getting some recognition in our training and to that end we have a proposal for you.

    I can't start to appreciate how the loss of Richard must still be very raw for you and your children, but if you feel you may have advice or lessons to share with the next generation of Anaesthesia / ICM doctors we'd be hugely honoured if you'd consider coming to speak to us.

    I completely understand if this would in no way be an attractive idea for someone rebuilding their life as you are, but if it is please consider getting in touch with me (j.shilston@nhs.net).

    Either way thank you for writing you article in the guardian it shed's stark light on an area that a lot of us feel get's a woeful lack of attention when working and training in medicine.

    james

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  • Complaints literally kill doctors

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