Some days, despite it all, I am reminded just how fundamentally awesome the NHS family can be. Today was one of those.
Since the pandemic began, our potential COVID-19 cases have been seen in a separate centre. Local GPs have left their own practices to review each other’s patients, supported by admin staff and nurses. We could argue for the rest of the day about whether that was a good plan or not, but most of our small, crumbling buildings made it impossible to keep everyone safe.
Last night, before my first shift, I was so anxious that I woke every hour, and drove to the centre as though heading to my execution. For the first time in my career, I was expected to deal with a whole new disease. For the first time in years I was joining a whole new team. I'm not sure which was making me more nervous.
Having had the luxury of working in one place for almost 18 years now, I know my team pretty well. I recognise Margaret’s laugh coming from reception with my consulting room door shut. I can identify which of the nurses has walked the corridor to my door by their footsteps. I know who likes the strawberry creams, and who prefers the green triangles.
We have shared stories of nights out when the doctors dressed in Abba outfits and our practice manager danced on the table, his size-12 feet squeezed into stolen red heels.
We've held each other's babies, cried through bereavements and brought coffee and chocolate biscuits to stave off despair mid-afternoon. Taking care of each other, in good times and bad, is what we do.
All that to say, I’m at home there. No matter how stressful the day gets, there's an ease that feels like family.
Heading in to work a shift with strangers, there was a real sense of apprehension – like the first day of school without the shiny shoes and new pencil case. It had been a long time since I was this far out of my comfort zone.
I needn't have worried. Despite the stressful circumstances that we were all doing our best to adjust to, the staff were kind, patient and downright fun to be around.
Waiting for patients to arrive, I was reminded of the simple joy of sitting with a mug of dodgy instant coffee (socially distanced, wearing masks and ill-fitting, light-blue scrubs), listening to the chat. If you’ve been part of an NHS team, perhaps you recognise the scene.
Kevin and Jim, nurses with the easy banter that comes from years of connection, were on fine form. Kevin had made Jim a special certificate on lavender card, scrawled in Sharpie, 'For having the loveliest legs, and being an all-round honey'.
Jim told me Kevin wasn’t even really a nurse. At the start of the pandemic he’d been discovered sleeping under a hedge in the hospital grounds. Short staffed, they’d hosed him down in the ambulance bay before dressing him up in scrubs and giving him 'a wee job to keep him off the streets'.
Kevin cheerfully confirmed the story in his best Glaswegian, agreeing that he was 'jist happy tae hiv somewhere warm tae sit', and it was worth the risk of 'catchin’ the COVID'.
It took me back to my days as the most junior, least useful and most terrified member of an acute medical receiving team, and the camaraderie of the doctors mess and nurses station. Somehow, the dark humour and teasing I encountered made it easier to trust that eventually I would be relaxed enough to joke about this frightening world I’d just become part of. These people had been doing the job for years before I arrived and were not only still standing, but still laughing. It gave me hope that one day I would be part of a team that loved each other enough to be appallingly, hilariously mean to its members, like all the best families.
Today, 20 years after I was the terrified new girl on the ward, the ready welcome into a new team with its resident comedy duo settled my nerves once again.
As the tension in my shoulders eased, I started to believe that perhaps everything was going to be OK. The disease and the processes might be new, but I knew my part in this NHS family, and trusted myself and those nurses to rise to the challenge.
And even if sometimes in the months to come we might all be afraid, and some days it really isn’t OK at all, we’ll still have one another and Jim’s lovely legs.
Gyda Meeten is a GP in Clackmannanshire. Her winning entry to this year’s BMA writing competition can be seen here