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‘I knew I was breaking every rule’

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My first clinical placement as a medical student found me on the wards. ‘Go and take a history from the girl in room three. Take your time, she’s guarded but might open up if you persevere,’ I was told. I’ll never forget what came of that simple command. Her name and face haunt me and this was the start of the formation of the understanding, non-judgemental doctor I hope I am.

In the dark side-room I found ‘Joanna’. She was a pretty mixed-race girl looking older than her 25 years. Introducing myself, I sat. She looked at me with a mixture of disdain and disinterest. I started as I normally would – ‘Why are you here? What led up to it?‘ – and got nothing. Changing tack, I asked her why she looked so sad. She said I wouldn’t be interested. I suggested she try. She scowled, added a few expletives and told me to leave.

I persevered, took a gamble and shared a little bit of my life

I persevered, took a gamble and shared a little bit of my life. I knew I wasn’t meant to, but I told her that I had a son with similar skin colour to hers and sometimes life was pretty mean to him – had it been mean to her? She suddenly showed interest and over the next hour, which flew by, I learned about this young woman’s life. She seemed to have lived five lives and the pain and suffering made me want to hold her.

Aged five she had been given to African grandparents with her sister. They beat her because ‘she had the devil in her’. She looked at me, searching for confirmation that ‘it must be true because they didn’t beat my sister’. I reassured her that it wasn’t. Aged 14, she met a boy who said he loved her and she needed love. He introduced her to crack cocaine and his dad helped her sell her body to buy it. She saw all of this as the love her grandparents withheld.

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On this road to hell she had five children, all taken away and adopted. She contracted HIV, TB and Hepatitis C. She couldn’t take antiretrovirals because of her chaotic lifestyle. And here she was undergoing in-patient TB treatment because she couldn’t stick to it at home.

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We talked about her future – she wanted to work with animals and be a mum. I told her that it was never too late to turn things around, look at me: a medical student aged 40 with an 18-year-old son.

Other writing competition entries

(2nd place) Dr Helen Cotton: My son’s call for help saved me

(3rd place) Dr Richard Cook: ‘I tried to speak, but no words came’

(Runner-up)  Dr Celine Inglis: Being a doctor puts you in a strange position for tragedy 

(Under-35s winner) Dr Heather Ryan: ‘Sometimes you need to break rules to be kind’

The best of the other entries

‘I wish you’d been my mum,’ she said as I got up to go. My heart broke. In that moment I wished I had been. She caught me off guard as she said ‘Can I have your mobile number? I promise I won’t use it, it would just make me feel safe’. I knew I was breaking every rule as I gave it to her but she kept her word, she never called. Secretly I wished she had. 

Dr Renee Hoenderkamp is a first year qualified GP in North London. She receives a Kindle Fire HD for her winning entry.