Sharing our stories can tackle isolation and create change

A penchant to pursue matters of injustice after overcoming obstacles of her own led emergency medicine specialist Cathy Wield to get involved with BMA activism

Location: UK
Published: Wednesday 23 March 2022

I went to St George’s medical school at the University of London straight from A levels, and a surgical career was my ambition. Life took a very different turn when I met and married my husband after obtaining my intercalated BSc. I became pregnant and gave birth to our daughter at the beginning of my final year of medical school. Working ‘house jobs’ part-time in 1983 was not possible and with no family to help, I decided to defer my medical career. 

It was almost eight years later that I started work as a doctor, role-swapping with my husband who cared for our family of four children. Long hours and my desire to excel at motherhood and medicine took their toll. Self-care had taken a back seat. I was diagnosed with depression, and it took another eight years to return to work again, which I did as a flexible trainee in A&E.

All went well until we were forced to move when my husband was made redundant. I asked the BMA for help when I had to deal with a misogynist consultant who was also the flexible training dean in my place of work. The stress of this situation led me and my psychiatrist to believe that I had a relapse of depression, and I was advised to give up medicine altogether. 

Fortunately, another relocation and a propensity to bounce back enabled me to return to work once again in my favoured specialty of emergency medicine, but this time, as a trust grade registrar. I wasn’t ignorant of opportunities to progress my career further but completely unable to access them, thanks to a subtle mixture of ageism, sexism, and disability discrimination. I decided to try my luck overseas. Although successful with USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination), I underestimated how opposed the US medical system is to IMGs and found myself back in the UK, this time as a specialty doctor in emergency medicine. 

I have a penchant to pursue matters of injustice, partly due to my own life experience of having to survive some difficult situations.

Despite being a member of the BMA since my first job, it was not until recently that I fully understood the opportunities that were there for me to become more active within the BMA. In 2019 I wrote a letter, published by the BMJ, outlining my opposition to the way SAS doctors continue to be subject to discrimination by pernicious exclusion. It was following this that my involvement with the BMA began. I am now a member of multiple BMA committees, including  SASC UK, SWRC, SWRSASC, NEW and the LNC at the trust where I work. I am glad that as an organisation it is changing to become more relevant to all doctors at any stage of their career. 

I am passionate about defending the rights of SAS doctors and furthering the recognition of our branch of practice for the valuable service we give to the NHS. I also believe that there is a general failure within medicine to understand the ages and stages that particularly affect women in medicine. 

I believe that if stakeholders were to collaborate more, we would enhance our performance as doctors and potentially lengthen our careers. I wish to work with the BMA to achieve these aims. 

If I had my time again, I would teach my younger self to understand life’s pressures, reduce the unreasonable expectations I had of myself and therefore resist the medicalisation thrust on me, one that labelled an understandable stress reaction as mental illness. I would have been much happier if my experience had been normalised, but it was not. Instead, I was made to think that I was weak and ill. 

A smooth journey along the road to success is unusual; tripping up or falling over along the route towards our hopes and dreams is normal. Sharing our stories can remove the ghastly sense of isolation that further compounds any unwarranted sense of failure. It can stimulate the strength to pick ourselves up and keep going. The BMA is our union and can facilitate these conversations, and formulate policies that will bring positive change to our working lives.

We are resilient as women doctors yet sometimes, we need the togetherness and the solidarity to produce change that will benefit the whole of our profession.

Cathy Wield is a specialist in emergency medicine and is a member of SASC (the SAS doctors committee) UK and the BMA’s network of elected women.