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Live and learn blog

Indelible first-hand lesson in care

I was diagnosed with cancer tantalisingly close to the end of my foundation year 1. Without warning I went from the bedside into the bed.

With the prospect of months of chemotherapy, I became preoccupied with the inevitable delay in my training and the gap on my CV.

Naively, I piled my bedside high with Oxford Handbooks and made mental plans to finish off that audit or submit an abstract perhaps? This would be the perfect time to catch up on accumulated paperwork, and revise for the Membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians exams. The prospect of lying in bed for six months watching The Jeremy Kyle Show absolutely terrified me.

Alas, cycles of chemotherapy caught up on me. The books gathered dust, journals lay unopened and practice questions untouched. Some days, all I could do was lie in my bed and watch the ward go by — the hum of buzzers, beeps of empty drips and nurses’ footsteps hurrying to patients; porters back and forth, trolley after trolley of meals.

Yet, among the catheters, cannulas, sickness and scans, I gradually realised that everything I encountered was a lesson beyond that offered by any course or textbook. I learned in six months what it takes some doctors to learn in years, or perhaps, for many, what may never be realised; I gained the patient’s perspective.

I now know that, yes, cannulas hurt, but it’s not really physical pain, it’s the drip stand which looms above, trapping you so that you cannot easily move, undress or shower without assistance and ordeal. I noticed a shift in staff demeanour when they knew what I didn’t yet know and learned that reassuring smiles, honest communication and handholding are worth a thousand words.

We’ve all heard it said that being a doctor is a privilege and while it sounds absurd to say that experience of illness is a privilege, it is a unique insight that only a few doctors will ever gain.

Looking back, I feared falling behind my peers and losing out on my training. Yet what I have gained is far more valuable. It was an experience that anyone would reasonably want to forget, and now as I move on, returning to work on the wards, memories do fade. But I, for one, do not want to forget.

Megan Hume is an Edinburgh foundation doctor 1

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