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Reimmersing into general practice



I write this on my birthday, and, cannily, I have taken the day off as annual leave.

Last year, I endured the worst birthday of my life – my first since my husband’s death four months previously, and also a day of moving house, into temporary accommodation, while the hunt for a home continued, following our sudden move back from New Zealand to England.

It was a grey, cold, typically raw February day, and life seemed immeasurably grim.

One year on, the sun is shining. I know that this is a Bad Thing really, this weird blast of early summer chucked into the tail end of winter, and that some sort of unspeakable climate change apocalypse is no doubt around the corner, but I can’t help but revel in it and soak up its healing warmth.

I’m on a train which is whisking me through mesmerisingly beautiful Shropshire countryside scenes, to a meeting with some of my oldest friends for lunch, and I have a dinner date tonight.

It once seemed quite impossible that I would ever be happy again, but there it is. My husband is dead, and never coming back, and I mourn him daily; nevertheless, the colour is returning to my life.

As for work, it too has settled into a pattern that suits me, and that I can even enjoy. I have finally found a small corner of general practice that I can tolerate – weekly evening extended-hours GP surgeries.

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Less endless and draining than the weekend ones I started off with, and a chance to be reimmersed, week after week, into the glorious variety and unpredictability of life as a GP.

I had forgotten the way that people bring you little jam jars of bodily fluids for your inspection, for instance, or the contents of their baby’s nappies. I have had the usual astonishing confidences made in me, I have clasped people’s raw, chapped hands in mine, I have had an unexpected hug.

I have clasped people’s raw, chapped hands in mine; I have had an unexpected hug 

I have inspected the criss-cross patterns of self-inflicted cuts on a teenage boy’s arm, and sympathised with a woman gradually losing her once strong, proud, fiercely intelligent husband to the ravages of dementia.

I have cycled home each week in the dark, a welcome chance for the stories I have heard to settle within me, to join the thousands of others I have had shared with me over my 21 years in general practice. As I pedal, I marvel at the way people doggedly keep going, in the face of adversity.

In short, every week, for three hours, I’m reminded why I don’t just throw in the towel completely, and step away from my GP work for good. I know that my contribution to the vast national effort of primary care is tiny, but it’s a small offering of myself which remains important to me, it turns out.

Life is suffering, as the Buddhists tell us; yes, it certainly is. We all know that. But, fortunately, it isn’t just that. It is also reaching out to others as they suffer, however unable we feel to magically turn their lives around.

It is the holding of their hand, figuratively, and sometimes literally. It is what was offered to me, in my hour (my many hours!) of need, by so many, and in a small way, it is what I try to offer to others too.

I know that I can’t be any more of a GP than this, partly because of the time I wish to give to my two palliative care jobs, and to my children, and partly because of a deep personal exhaustion borne of grief and loss. But I am glad to still be on the team, so to speak. Glad, and proud.

Dr Kate Harding is a locum GP and hospice doctor