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My journey from doctor to patient is expeditious.
One day I am leading the ward round, followed by clinic and reviewing inpatient referrals – exams within my grasp and CCT on the horizon. Less than 24 hours later and I’m in A&E, being told I have acute myeloid leukaemia and need blue-lighting to the hospital where I work.
I am a fit and healthy trainee, juggling a busy tertiary hospital rotation and a gruelling on-call rota with studying… until suddenly I am not.
The first few days I feel like Alice through the looking glass. Being on the receiving end of countless needles, medications and the familiar ‘breaking bad news’ phrases is an out-of-body experience. Being treated in isolation (my neutrophils are terrifyingly low) heightens the surrealism.
However, travelling further down the rabbit hole, with a Hickman line and an assigned nurse specialist, reality starts to sink in. My role in this process is as a patient, not a doctor.
I have practised medicine for the best part of a decade, but it is only now that I fully appreciate how one’s illness defines you when you become a patient.
For years medicine has been a vocation that has dominated my life. Now I am confined to a single room, my time and thoughts revolving solely around my treatment, and not my patients’. Heels, Hobbs dresses and hair have been replaced with slippers, pyjamas and a hat. Instead of the doctor who treated you, I am the patient with AML.
I try and cling onto my old identity – eavesdropping on my team’s Whatsapp group and texting colleagues for the latest work gossip, but as the weeks become months I have to accept that I need to press a large pause button on that part of my life.
There’s no denying my profession influences my experience as a patient – from better informed discussions with my wonderful medical team to increased tolerance of failed cannula attempts – an experience encapsulated in Kate Grainger’s blog. But on the whole, I have to concede I am not well enough, or objective enough, to have any meaningful control.
Drawing up a list of things to do when I’m out, FaceTiming friends and family, and replacing my gym routine with some gentle (physio-prescribed) exercise have given me an anchor as I adjust to a new routine – and an altered outlook.
Before now, I always thought that knowing my patients’ backgrounds enhanced my interactions because it established a good rapport, and aided shared decision making.
But I’ve come to realise it’s something more than that. When you get a life-changing diagnosis, or spend any significant time in hospital, your ultimate goal isn’t just to get better. It’s to get back to your previous self. It’s to reclaim the identity you had before. Knowing who your patient was is knowing the outcome they want from their treatment.
For me, a great outcome would be to return to training, with a (near enough as possible) clean bill of health. But there are hurdles and great uncertainties in my way; in the meantime, I am learning to be a patient. And at least I can use the staff WiFi when the patients’ network is down.
If I can reclaim my identity and practise medicine once more, I will approach many aspects of my work differently. But mainly I will remember that I am more than just a doctor and the person in front of me is more than just a patient.
Louise Macgowan is a junior doctor. She writes under a pseudonym
Find out about the BMA’s wellbeing support services
I know how you feel, so just wanted to send you a big (virtual) hug and wish you all the best with your treatments and recovery.
Wishing you all the best in your recovery
Wishing you all the best through your treatment and recovery.
Thankyou for sharing. I’m so sorry that you are going through this.
A lot to learn.
thank you for sharing. wish you all the best and quick recovery!
Being on the other side completely changed my perspective of what it is like being a doctor and what is important in life.
Be kind to yourself, I took 3 years out to work through things...take care and wishing you a fast recovery
Thanks for sharing your incredibly hard experiences: so valuable for all of us to hear. Wishing you all the very best and as speedy a recovery as possible.