Why saying ‘yes’ has brought adventure to my GP career

by Rowena Christmas

Supportive parents and an inquisitive mind can get you far in life – even to far-flung places such as Russia

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 12 May 2022
rowena smaller

I grew up in a working-class family and my parents left school at 16.

Despite this, they were voracious readers, listened to Radio 4, and always believed that I would go to university. I was told 'you’re smart enough to be anything you want to be' and experiencing constant love and confidence from my parents has been empowering.

I always wanted to do medicine. The combination of science with patient stories feels like the best of all worlds. I’ve worked full time for 27 years and I’ve never been bored. Boredom frightens me, so medicine was a good choice!

I believe passionately in the importance of relationship-based care. We have overwhelming evidence showing how this improves outcomes for patients while improving job satisfaction for clinicians.

I’ve been in our small, rural practice for 22 years. I’m old enough to have done baby checks for mums who have my black fountain-penned notes in their paper records documenting their baby checks. That creates a depth of family knowledge that makes my job very special – although no one would deny general practice is both challenging and exhausting these days.

Being a woman from a comprehensive school, I have had to work hard to overcome imposter syndrome. I had two fantastic role models from my year at medical school, both with similar backgrounds to me: Dame Helen Stokes Lampard and Charlotte Jones.

Both are exemplary medical leaders, ensuring they put patients and the profession first, speaking always with passion and evidence and working incredibly hard to be at the top of their game.

I’ve learned to overcome feelings of ‘who am I to do that?’ and instead believe as my father said to me all those years ago, ‘I can do that.’ Then I make sure I put in the work needed to ensure I do a good enough job.

This philosophy of saying yes whenever possible has brought only good things. Our team support one another to cover surgeries, discuss complex patients, or spot when we need a cup of tea or a hug. We ensure we nobody misses their child’s assembly!

Saying yes has also brought adventure. Shortly after becoming a GP, my uncle developed a serious illness in Russia but accidentally cancelled his health insurance. He was deteriorating rapidly and speaking to a chest physician colleague made me realise we needed to get him home.

We chartered a Lear Jet and a paramedic and I got an emergency visa. I left home armed with my doctor’s bag and a cheese sandwich. It felt a bit inadequate. As I left the tiny plane in Moscow, the pilot pressed his card on me and wished me luck. It felt utterly surreal.

The ‘ambulance’ we had arranged was a white van with a plastic chair and a camp bed in the back and it smelt of either easy-start or vodka. Snow was falling, it was dark, and sliding around on the plastic chair, unable to communicate with the driver, I wondered if I was even being taken to the hospital.

I was, and eventually found my uncle who looked terrible. He had two chest drains in situ which were draining foul-smelling yellow exudate. His observations were marginally better than my worst imaginings and I started to believe we might just get him home. I found a wheelchair and we made our escape through dark, echoing corridors.

He deteriorated on the flight home, and I was grateful for the expertise and reassurance of the paramedic. The tiny plane couldn’t land in Bristol due to terrible fog and diverted to Cardiff, with my poor husband following behind while trying to rearrange his ambulance to hospital.

We made it, and my uncle had surgery for a large empyema the following day. It was probably the most exciting medical case of my life and something I needed to quash imposter syndrome to take on.

Saying yes has led to other opportunities. RCGP Wales asked me to give evidence to the Health Select Committee in the Senedd for the bill to ban the physical punishment of children. I agreed, but my knowledge base was scanty.

I turned to another fantastic colleague, Anne Marie Cunningham, who explained Google Scholar and sent me some papers. This was the start of another career highlight and enabled me to publish a paper about this important safeguarding issue, present it to RCGP UK Council and see the bill passed in Wales. We are now working with a group in Westminster to push for the same outcome for England.

I am motivated first and foremost by patients. We have such a privileged role, supporting families through their most challenging times. I know personally the value of this. My husband has had cancer twice – you never forget the support of those who cared when you are most vulnerable. Small kindnesses become incredibly precious.

For patients to receive the best care, we need a primary care workforce who are well supported, not exhausted, and emotionally in a place where they can give their best. Achieving this must be our current priority.

I would strongly encourage women to consider a career in general practice – it’s the best job. It can be flexible around family needs, offers rich, lifelong opportunities for learning, taking on different roles, being part of a strong and supportive team, and for adventure! I would encourage you to say yes and reach for opportunities. Be brave and ask for advice and support, notice the small things, and look for the learning in any situation.

Rowena Christmas is a GP at St Briavels, Wye Valley Practice, and chair of the Royal College of GPs Wales