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The privilege of being a doctor

We are currently immersed in negative press about general practice and I have to confess; I am responsible for some of it. Which is why I feel compelled to write about a recent uplifting experience. 

This year I attended a trainee award ceremony for the first time. I have always been enviously sceptical about high achievers, probably because I was always the girl who came second. So I had not expected I would be moved, humbled and inspired.

There were a variety of awards issued, from leadership and research, to global health and personal achievement. We heard tales of front-line obstetric emergency care in South Africa. We saw horrific pictures of a woman whose face was ravaged by cutaneous lymphoma, and completely transformed after chemotherapy. We were transported to Somalia with a trainee who spent time delivering medical education.

But the highlight was a presentation by Professor Bill Irish and Dr Henry Nwume, an ST3 trainee, who travelled to Sierra Leone last November to offer medical aid during the Ebola crisis. We learnt about the protective attire, the building of ‘ward tents’ and the various zones where patients would circulate before exiting, either alive or dead.

Henry stole the show when he discussed the human stories behind the crisis. His delivery was perfect; slow, reflective and heartfelt. We saw a slide of a young woman in a summer dress looking radiant. Then Henry told how he had watched her disintegrate in the most undignified way possible. With blood extruding from every orifice, she was too weak to even squat over the hole in her ‘cholera’ bed and ended up lying on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood and excrement. And all anyone could do was clean her up and put her back in bed. But somehow this young woman, who had been moved into the death zone, defied all the odds and survived. There was not a dry eye in sight as we looked at the photograph of her – clearly delighted to be in a posh frock.

Yet it wasn’t all success stories. Henry grappled with the ethical conflicts of turning patients away who did not test positive for Ebola, knowing full well they would meet certain death. And there were many sleepless nights about discharging babies into orphanages, where they had a high chance of other fatal infections.

When the presentation was over, there was a standing ovation for Henry and Bill. Many of us were fighting back the tears – tears for the enormous human suffering that exists, tears for the internal conflicts the volunteers must have faced, and tears of gratitude and humility about our privileged lives.

My most overwhelming feeling was how proud and honoured I am to be a doctor and a GP. The media and the Government may demonise and scapegoat us, but nothing can come between the special relationship that develops between a doctor and a patient. And we must never forget that.

Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol