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The dreaded words: ‘Mum, I want to be a doctor’

kate new


Obviously, because I am a mother, much of my waking life is spent worrying about my children. This tendency was hardly helped by being widowed 18 months ago. And, recently, the baseline level of anxiety to which I have long been accustomed took a dramatic upward trajectory when my teenage son made the announcement that many medical parents dread: ‘Mum, I’m thinking of doing medicine when I leave school’.

I suppressed an expletive, and, as so often before, attempted to appear calm and unruffled in the face of a potential crisis. And, in fact, the conversation that ensued was a salutary reminder of the pros, as well as the cons, of a career in medicine. I had to admit to him that few jobs could match it in terms of having a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. That the rewards are immense. That there is nothing like the feeling of having helped someone, in however small a way, even if their problem can’t be magically solved overnight, or indeed at all (an important caveat to throw in, just in case he decides on general practice).

We then came to the cons. Where to begin? Jake lost his anaesthetist father to suicide, as some of you will know. Richard died mainly because of the effects of work-related fatigue on a background of depression triggered in part by his first GMC complaint (despite being fully exonerated from any wrong-doing). I hardly needed to remind him of the risks to his emotional health and even to his life of choosing medicine as a profession. Most of us, of course, survive our doctoring, and many of us even thrive as medics. But is it any wonder many of us balk at the prospect of our children following in our footsteps, knowing what we know about what awaits them in the years to come?

I was, in short, the proverbial lamb going to slaughter

When I went to medical school, I was 17 years old. I had grown up in Brussels, knew virtually nothing about the NHS, and hadn’t set foot in a hospital since birth. My parents were linguists, and I knew no doctors. I had no work experience in any health-related field. I had, of course, done what little research was possible in 1987, prior to the days of Google and the internet, but that was necessarily limited. I was, in short, the proverbial lamb going to slaughter.

I will never forget the early, largely incomprehensible lectures in embryology, histopathology and anatomy, the complete mystification I felt, the feeling of having made the biggest mistake of my short life to date. In time, patient contact began, we left embryology behind. I began to see a point to it all, I stuck with it. It was only as a junior doctor, however, that the harsh reality of my career choice dawned on me. I would have to live with my mistakes, as well as my triumphs. Medicine would, now and again, involve harming people, as well as helping them. Sometimes, the harm would be very obvious. Sometimes, it would be invisible, and I could only guess at it.

How to communicate that to a 15-year-old? Is it fair to even try? He has, after all, grown up with two medical parents. He has witnessed many dinner-time conversations about our work, heard us share our anxieties about difficult decisions, ethical dilemmas, clinical challenges (what a loss that has been, no longer having Richard as my sounding board at the end of my working day!) Just as his sister and I do, he lives every day with the consequences of the letter from the GMC that changed the course of our family life forever. What else can I possibly tell him about the dark underbelly of medicine?

So, all that is left to do is encourage him, try to manage my own fears on his behalf, and remind myself that medicine remains a varied, stimulating, secure career full of opportunites, despite its considerable downsides. Anyway, let’s not forget that he might not get the grades that he needs – surely all I need to do is invite him to spend (even) more time on his PlayStation! Problem solved. I feel more cheerful already.

Dr Kate Harding is a locum GP and hospice doctor