The Secret Doctor is revealed! The highly successful blog’s author, Aoife Abbey, has chosen to identify herself in advance of a book about her experiences as an intensive care registrar.
Dr Abbey describes her experiences as the BMA’s second Secret Doctor, while her editor Neil Hallows pays tribute to her ‘extraordinarily perceptive and moving’ style… and how the search now begins for her successor.
The first time I wrote a ‘story’ published by BMA News, I was still a foundation doctor. I don’t think it was a coincidence that a then neurosurgical registrar had gifted his FY2 a book by the medical writer Frank Vertosick just a few weeks before. I think it was this unexpected gift that introduced me to the idea of the ‘medical story’.
After that, I wrote with irregularity until just under two years ago, when Neil Hallows asked me if I would be interested in taking up the mantle as The BMA’s ‘Secret Doctor’. And the unexpected offer came to me at a fortuitous time; my first blog was published just two months into what would be another important transition in my life; the switch from senior house officer to specialist registrar in the specialty that I loved, intensive care. There was so much to write about.
‘The Secret Doctor’ was not created really to spy in corners, blow whistles or even to tell any secrets. The beauty in the offer presented to me was defined by one thing; an opportunity to try and start a conversation about some of those experiences which make up the ‘everyday’ for me, and thousands like me.
Writing as ‘The Secret Doctor’ appealed to me because it was less about creating a celebrity doctor, and more about celebrating, with appropriate honesty, what it means to be a doctor. That is why I wrote. Before I became the Secret Doctor, I had gathered a small reputation for writing passionately within the context of political agenda and the NHS. But this opportunity was a chance to write about my life as a junior doctor, without a remit to ‘stand’ for, or against, anything at all.
Of course, I do stand for many things but there was something incredibly freeing about being allowed to write and be ‘apolitical’ in my intention. Looking back now, I honestly think it is the only way I could have ever done many of the experiences I have written about any justice at all.
Writing as the Secret Doctor has taught me the value there is in community. I have realised what wonderful support, not just doctors, but all healthcare professionals can provide for each other. I have come to believe that we should be encouraged to share with each other and that there is so much more we should share with the wider public.
I have had the privilege of being read by thousands of people, more people than I ever expected have read my words and I have benefited from countless examples of well thought out advice and sharing of experiences in response. But, I have also been exposed to many comments that are hurtful. I have been berated and insulted as arrogant, stupid, rude, naïve. I have been called out as a stealth mouthpiece for the BMA and accused of working to present an image of life as a doctor which is somehow counter-productive to the fight to improve working and training conditions within the NHS.
I don’t think I have ever been shy about drawing attention to the many things which might be changed to improve our NHS. I have also never been shy about saying how much I love my job, and my specialty. I don’t think these two things have to be mutually exclusive.
Many people have thought that what I wrote was somehow commissioned or controlled by ‘The BMA’. On the contrary, it has always been to my advantage that virtually the only person employed by the BMA who knew my identity was Neil and his expectations of me were clear from the outset; no gratuitous black humour, be professional, be honest, be who you are. Outside of those rules, there were no rules. Neil never said no and I never had any contact from any council or committee member within the BMA.
When I was approached by an editor from Vintage to write a book, I was incredibly surprised. After our first meeting, I was left with the task of bringing some sort of ‘order’ to the stories I had to tell. I needed to take what had become a 500-word-a-blog habit and think about what would made sense as a full-length book.
Months of the year, stages of training, diaries; all of the usual constructs fell flat against what I really wanted to tell people my experiences were about. Then I realised the most natural way I could order anything I had to say was under the headings of those things that make us human; fear, grief, anger, joy, hope, distraction and disgust. All of those things that we feel and share assembled together to form the skeleton of my book.
Of course, this brings me to the point at which I have to take off my mask. I will very much miss being the Secret Doctor and I hope if there is one thing I will carry with me from the past two years it is the inclination to really look at what is going on around me. I hope that I will retain the impetus to look for stories, and to find them sometimes in the most unexpected places.
To the person or persons who come after me, my advice would be this; write as ‘the Secret Doctor’ because you want to do justice to the things that you see and experience. Write because you want to pay homage to exactly what you share with your patients. Write not because you want to influence a political agenda, but because you want to tell a story and because you want to share.
Write like that, you might just be surprised by what you can influence.
‘Seven Signs of Life’ By Aoife Abbey will be published by Vintage in January 2019.
Jacket design: Rosie Palmer
Aoife Abbey is an ST5 in intensive care in the West Midlands.
Neil Hallows, who edits the Secret Doctor blog, responds:
Doctors ask people to put their trust in them. When I launched the Secret Doctor blog, I was asking a doctor to put their trust in me. No mistakes, no boastful blabbing, but a simple commitment to keep the Secret Doctor secret.
The name of the wonderful doctor who wrote the blog for its first two years will not be revealed. Nor will their gender, or where they work. Just that they’re a junior doctor. Possibly one of the junior doctors you work with.
And so it would have been for the astonishing Aoife, had her talents not been rightly recognised by a prestigious publisher. It turns out that promoting a book is quite difficult with a bag over your head, and so our second Secret Doctor is in the unusual position of needing to out herself.
It has been such a privilege. From the handful of articles she had already published, it was clear she was a writer of great insight. But in taking a punt on a new contributor, you are asking for 50, perhaps a hundred, articles of the same quality. Not all at once, and we can help with ideas, but if bands talk about a difficult second album, you can only imagine how difficult it is to tell that many new stories. And all this at the same time as a demanding day job which is hopefully a source of inspiration, but definitely a source of exhaustion.
Well done to the publisher who has found the writer who can describe the intricacies of working life with such grace, who wrote in my favourite piece by her about the ‘bomb’ of breaking bad news, and how its recipient, ‘grief, shifts in the green plastic armchair’.
Aoife’s blogs have been read hundreds of thousands of times, and she has written six out of ten of our most-read blogs in the last two years, but I want a wider audience still to enjoy this extraordinarily perceptive, moving and fundamentally decent perspective on working the wards.
The book is out in January, and we expected a bit more time before Aoife would need to out herself. The blog shall and must go on. So next week, we’ll run Aoife’s finale as the no-longer-secret doctor, then there’ll be some guest slots, before appointing a successor. Talking of whom, I have some possible candidates in mind but if you’d like to be considered, do get in touch.
So farewell, Aoife, and good luck with what I’m sure will be a fantastic career in both writing and medicine. Like another doctor who is close to my heart, there’s a regeneration on the way.
Neil Hallows is the BMA’s content editor
Read Aoife’s latest blog as the Secret Doctor
A relative newcomer and an irregular one at that, but I've enjoyed every piece I've read and will put the book on my birthday list. Thanks for the thought-provoking stories and apologies for the colleagues who chose to attack rather than engage
You've done a great job Aoife. Wishing you success with the book.
Sorry but no surprise to hear about the Trolls - there will always be thick uncouth idiots in our midst.
Dr Nick.... retired
Very best of luck aoife ❤️
Thanks Aoife and best of luck in medical and writing careers. I have often had the thoughts that you did but could never express myself. Thanks for being the mouthpiece for my subconscious!
Seems interesting to read about! Thanks
I’ve been an avid reader of this blog since the beginning! You capture so many of the emotions that I feel on a daily basis and have helped me to address and feel less guilty about some of the more negative emotions that inevitably arise from our work. Thank you and good luck
I always enjoy the Secret Doctor blogs. Well done Aoife and good luck with the new book.
I read your comments and observations of life in the frontline of our heath system with pride and saw realism in everything you wrote about. As an experienced trainer with involvement at regional and national level in my specialty I have tried to incorporate your thoughts into my own specialty and improve my own trainees experiences. Well done and good luck with your writing career.
I will miss your blogs, Aoife; I love your writing, and your honesty and courage. You have often reminded me why I'm a doctor, even while reminding me how hard it can be. Thank you, and keep writing.