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Independents' Day

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)

  • 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 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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