In August 2011 I was diagnosed with a rare aggressive terminal form of sarcoma. I was terribly ill initially with sepsis and an obstructive uropathy. There then followed months of complicated chemotherapy. My Consultant Oncologist told me at this time he didn’t think I would work as a Medical Registrar again. I am a stubborn individual and saw this as a challenge to prove him wrong. I have always enjoyed my job and was desperate to return to my beloved career.
The process of returning to work after prolonged sickness absence can be arduous. It felt as though several hurdles of varying heights were being lined up for me to clear. My GP and Oncologist both understood and supported my decision to return to work. The Occupational Health Consultant went through my medical history in intricate detail. I could sense he thought it was too soon to be contemplating working again. However I was so determined I was not about to take no for an answer. There were also meetings with Human Resources, the Deanery, my Educational and Clinical Supervisors. I felt akin to a car salesman trying to convince everyone I was ready and able to work. Three weeks after being discharged from hospital for the final time I achieved my ambition and returned to where I belong on a hospital ward.
My first day back was a real challenge. It had been a long six months without any patient contact and putting work clothes back on restored some semblance of normality to my life. I remember opening my first patient’s case notes vividly. She had metastatic breast cancer and her husband was coming in for a chat. I ended up doing the talking. I had been worried what my emotional response to cancer patients and their relatives would be but it was amazing how I slipped right back into doctor mode, it was just like riding a bike.
It was obvious from my physical appearance when I initially came back I had been having chemotherapy; I was wearing a hat, had no eyebrows or eyelashes and looked rather pale. The vast majority of my patients just accepted that was the way I looked and didn’t ask any questions. One chap with a brain tumour did however ask me if I was ill too. I couldn’t lie so told him that I had been having chemotherapy. He then asked me if my illness was terminal. This was an awkward situation to be in, but again I had to be honest with him. I think he appreciated my honesty and empathy.
I now only work three days a week and love it. Before cancer I had perhaps become a little cynical, generally feeling unappreciated and overworked. These feelings have now been dissipated and I try to remember how privileged I am to belong to such a wonderful profession whenever I feel myself becoming frustrated. I continue to be passionate about education and spend a great deal of time delivering teaching to medical students and junior doctors. I am also involved in trying to improve Palliative Care in the hospital.
How has illness changed me as a doctor? I am certainly more aware of my body language, I have a true understanding of how scary it is to be laid in a hospital bed, I am a stronger advocate for my patients and take more time to communicate with them and their families. I am in the enviable position of not being that pressurised time-wise at work now meaning I can really focus on the caring side of the job, which is something I really appreciate as a patient myself.
You can buy Kate’s book from her website www.theothersidestory.co.uk, with all proceeds going to the Yorkshire Cancer Centre. So far she has raised £20,000 for the YCC but hopes to riase £50,000. You can also donate directly to the YCC via thier website: www.yorkshirecancercent