A new generation’s fight for change

For South Asian Heritage Month, junior doctor Tilna Tilakkumar reflects on her family’s story – and why a career in today’s NHS doesn’t offer the stability it should

Location: UK International
Published: Friday 21 July 2023

My story of how I became a doctor in the NHS and representative on the BMA UK JDC (junior doctors committee) begins with my parents.

My father emigrated to the UK in the ’70s and my mother in 1990; they form part of the chronic trickle of Eela Tamil people out of Sri Lanka since its independence from the British Empire, when minorities began to be targeted and oppressed by continually growing far-right Sinhala Buddhist nationalist rhetoric.

My mother fostered within me the desire to become a doctor from a young age. When raising second generation immigrant children, she ingrained into us the importance of stability – a stable home, a stable income – following from her memories of her mother, sisters and her abandoning their home in the middle of the night during an air raid; her father moving from job to job from Colombo to Oman.

Of course, when I entered medical school in 2009, I would not know the profession was at the beginning of its pay erosion slope. Nor did I appreciate during my work experience or clinical placements the diabolical working conditions, infantilisation of non-consultant doctors, or how doctors’ goodwill and naïvety are taken advantage of.

I began to try and right these wrongs at a local level at my training hospital in January 2020 by taking a trust position as co-chair of the junior doctor executive forum. Then of course COVID hit.

My hospital finally got an on-site mess after we commandeered an empty room

It was more important than ever that staff had adequate rest spaces and facilities; hot food at night, access to showers, a place to sleep if they were too tired to drive home after a night shift. My hospital finally got an on-site mess after we commandeered and claimed squatters’ rights to an obscenely large empty room accidentally come upon whilst lost in the maze of labs.

It is a fond memory of mine, carrying sofas with six other doctors across the patient car park from the collapsing office block covered in scaffolding and hazard signs in which the old mess was in. An equally fond memory was being able to use the John Lewis donations the BMA distributed to us to not only kit out the new mess but replace the tired staff room kitchen equipment on every ward.

Through the junior doctors forum role I learnt more about junior doctors’ terms and conditions, and long after I left the role I continued to help colleagues get the annual leave they wanted, create the flexible work schedule they were entitled to and challenge HR over pay issues.

My reputation seemed to precede me locally as a colleague recommended me to run for BMA regional rep in 2022 and I went on to gain a seat on UK JDC. Conducting ward walks and hosting pizza and pay events across the region whilst visibly pregnant and a person of colour, I hoped would be affirming to colleagues.

My parents, whilst proud of the work I have been doing, are of course concerned in a typical older first-generation immigrant way that my visible work will make me unemployable! However, I push on to effect change at every opportunity, to leave the profession in a better state than I received it, to represent Tamil Eelam diaspora on every platform; this is the story I want to tell my daughter, Bharathi Devi.

Tilna Tilakkumar is the North Thames regional deputy for flexible working on the BMA junior doctors committee