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My husband, the 'c' word and why doctors really do make the worst patients

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Fresh off the plane from his honeymoon, the newly married 28-year-old asked nervously to see the duty doctor. A few hours later, he found himself sitting before his GP. He’d last seen a doctor when his 14-year old self sat in the very same chair with an ear infection.

Neither could comprehend how fast time had flown, as the fresh-faced junior doctor stared into his wiser counterpart’s eyes for answers. Mouth dry, he gulped anxiously, all too aware of the new lump in his neck as he did so. It suddenly seemed colossal, the elephant in the room.

Seeing things through the lens of a patient has injected us both with a new level of empathy

He knew what was coming: ‘I’ll arrange an ultrasound in a few days’ time, and we’ll get you seen in the next two weeks.’ Another patient flung back into the system, with nothing to do but endure the wait for permission to resurface. He went back home to his wife.

From that moment on, the out-of-body experience began. It was as though they’d been suddenly submerged under water. Both cut off from normality, stripped of their usual patient-facing facades brimming with youthful immortality, to expose a new vulnerability. Time seemed to crawl by excruciatingly slowly as the rest of the world scurried on oblivious.

That was my husband and I, four weeks ago.

‘We make the worst patients’. The rueful comment from the ENT surgeon ten days later brought us back down to earth. With bleary eyes and stale mouth, souvenirs of a relentless night shift in general medicine, my husband sat quietly, dazed.

Suddenly all senses were heightened; I was acutely aware of every detail, from the pounding of my heart to the firm grip of his handshake, with the Nike FuelBand dangling from his wrist. The set of notes he scribbled in, with his hospital number scrawled across the top. The glare of the familiar pathology screen behind him, my husband’s date of birth in the corner making it suddenly unrecognisable. I couldn’t help but stare at him silently with pleading eyes. Behind those anonymous identifiers, there was a person. A future.

The following week as our colleagues went on strike, fuelled by visceral contempt for Mr Hunt, we were in hospital for his hemithyroidectomy.

We know we’re lucky. We know the odds are stacked in his favour, whatever the final outcome of the histology. Nevertheless, spending a career ducking away from jargon and nudging our patients towards open dialogue hasn’t prevented us from avoiding the ‘c’ word.

But seeing things through the lens of a patient has injected us both with a new level of empathy. As the consultant presented the options, I ached for him to take control, to lift the burden of choice of our shoulders. Battling internally with a mess of raw emotion, every little thing began to matter. Every statistic was magnified. Insignificant words echoed in my ears long after the consultation. ‘As soon as possible’ could never be soon enough. I hadn’t appreciated it before.

A new level of empathy, and also a new-found gratitude, for the system, which gave us a remarkably seamless transition from primary to secondary care, delivering us from that first hunch that something wasn’t quite right, into the confident and capable hands of the person who could steer us in the right direction. Without having to worry about the costs. And for the people within it, from the receptionist at the GP surgery to the domestic staff on the ward, who listened to what mattered to us with a kindness and compassion that reminded us why we entered this profession.

We’re proud to think we’re part of this, and one of them.  Wherever they take us from here.

Dr Nishma Manek is a GP trainee in London. Dr Manek is raising money for the Butterfly Thyroid Cancer Trust by running three half marathons over the next three months. If you would like to donate, please visit

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Readers' comments (12)

  • Azeem Majeed

    Very sorry to hear about your husband's illness Nishma. I hope he makes a good recovery.

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  • when he saw me the day after my radical prostatectomy my surgeon said that two months previously he had his appendix removed - he was now able to empathise more closely with his patients!I recommend that all clinicians read "A Leg to Stand On" by Dr Oliver Sacks.

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  • It is good to read a story praising the NHS-Pulse is usually full of "bad news".

    I do hope your husband is cured and does well.

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  • Just Your Average Joe

    Best wishes for your husband - may he make a full recovery.

    It is sad but true that a spell on the other side of the fence does open up a clinician's eyes to the small nuances that make a patients journey more difficult, and perhaps make them more empathic to their plight.

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  • Vinci Ho

    Best wishes to your husband and your family

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  • hope all goes well

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  • Recently been in similar situation with husband: Fortunately a good outcome. Definitely changed my practice.
    Hope husband is soon receiving good news.

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  • I too saw a hospital doctor a few days before the strike. The help I received was what I expected. BUT -

    Q: Did I feel grateful?
    A: No - have you seen my tax bill?

    Q: Did I feel proud to part of it?
    A: No. I was so disillusioned by the NHS and the beating up of GPs that I took a break from clinical practice a few months ago.

    Q: Is there a point to this article other than the obvious which is that when we are patients we gain some insight?
    A: No. Or at least I can't see it.

    I sympathise with anyone in Dr Manek and/or her husband's position but I am not sure what this article is trying to say.
    What I do know is that I support our junior doctors and anyone else who wishes to preserve the dignity of our profession and the good that it does for our society. Sorry if that sounds harsh.

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  • Vinci Ho

    It is always about doing the right thing at the right place at the right time in history .
    For those who have lived the 60/70s , 80/90s and 0/10s(now) will perhaps understand what I am trying to say.
    It was a privilege to live my teenage and young adulthood through 80s and early 90s. It was fun , it was glamorous and in a way , utopian, in big contrast to 60 and 70s. The culture was mesmerising : New Romantics(Duran Duran Spandau Ballet,ABC,Eurythmics , Ultravox, Yazoo , etc ), Rom-Coms(When Harry met Sally, Mannequin ,About Last Night and Sleepless in Seattle), Sci-Fi icons(Terminator, Aliens). Even Rocky was more like a superhero than a human boxer(a bit sad to see the story of the character in the latest movie Creed). The optimism injected into people , especially the young ones , was so positive. Of course , one argument was a Reagan/Thatcher, Republican/Conservative regime taking the 'credit' ,creating wealth(in the expense of certain sections of society ).
    I would rather see that as part of a natural cycle of history.
    As soon as 9/11 and London bombing happened in 2001 and 2005 respectively , the big wheel of time started to rotate again . Perhaps , people did not wake up enough to see the ultimate punishment on ongoing optimism : the demise of Lehman Brothers in 2008 after living for 158 years . The shock wave of the crisis continues to propagate up to now. Yes, it was probably inevitable , the overt optimism and hence greed blew the financial bubble so huge that it was only a matter of time to burst. But more important to me is the aftermath effects on people's sentimentalities(again , more so on our young ones). The 'culture' has taken a complete U turn: Vampires and Zombies as icons , Dystopian bestsellers(Hunger Games , Divergent series , Maze Runner) , Game of Thrones etc. It is all dark , rebelling and the voice of discontent against a broken system . Even Harry Porter's life was a real struggle !
    It was interesting when I read one of these so called surveys about how people in the world seeing the future right now. Apart the China, majority of people in all other countries thought the situation of the world could only go worse and most scored low on a happiness scale.
    So what have the political leaders done? Yes, there is a war going on in Middle East and against terrorism. But more importantly , it is about revolting against the establishment . With the help of Internet , we had Jasmine Revolution spreading across from Tunisia , Morocco , Egypt ,Hong Kong and China .There is clearly a conflict between generations, old against new. Even Ukraine was about what the young people wanted for their future country. To me , we are already in the middle of the Third World War.
    One school of thought would suggest the reason why these home-bred ethnic minority youngsters travelled all the way back to their country of origin to join the terrorists , was because of being socially marginalised , stripped off their opportunities of moving up the social ladder in their society . The evidence is perhaps there when our politicians bragging how low the total unemployment rate was ,masking the truth that young people unemployment and poverty at work are the real problems. The circumstances are unique with ultra-low interest rate and petrol price.
    It was then , this is now . Using the same old Tory's economic formula to solve this current mess is either doing the wrong thing at the right time or doing the 'right' thing at the wrong time.
    Politicians are only interested in extracting gain in political capital by setting unrealistic targets in public sectors ,stirring up rivalry contest and confrontation with any opposition using their propaganda media machine. (behaviour of NHSE and DoH in our sector said it all )
    Reading Obama's final state of Union address speech published on 12th of January, I just wonder what would have happened if he had swapped place with Cameron(though I am not a big follower of American politics).
    People need to be happier and hence healthier to increase creativity and productivity .This is something an economist can never understand .
    Of course, the irony at the moment is the so called richer countries , BRICS, are the one where freedom and autonomy are well suppressed. But I still see that as short term in the scale of history(especially if you look at the economic figures of Russia and the stock market of China right now). Longevity of prosperity , to me , only happens if freedom and autonomy are guaranteed .
    NHS has turned into a dystopia.It gives me pain to see that people defending the establishment criticised our youngsters of being 'not bothered' , lazy and unprofessional when they stood up for their rights against unfairness . While these youngsters never experience what we had in our early times , we equally do not fully understand what they are up against these days. The criticism and bashing with old doctrines was purely out of self pride , prejudice and ego.
    The responsibility of the politicians/leaders remain in re-creating that happy and optimistic atmosphere for our younger generation(s). (Remember what I wrote about the new Star Wars movie?).
    Failing to do this , they will be judged in the history as the leaders crushing the dream and hope of our next generation.
    Love is indeed an old fashioned word . It ceased to work only because we do not know how to use it at the right place at the right time .......

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