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Why I walked away

Entry No6 BMA writing competition 2017

To my patients,

I feel an incredible sense of loss and an incredible sense of failure.

But the right thing to do for me was to leave. I was a doctor for four years. I still am a doctor, I suppose, but not in that way. I don’t work on wards any more, or with other doctors and nurses and pharmacists and I don’t work with my dear, dear, difficult, terrifying patients. So in my head not a real doctor, not really, not to me.

I find it difficult to convey quite how hard it is, or how hard I found it, to be a doctor. I don’t mean the book learning, I don’t mean the exams, I don’t mean the hours, even. I mean the people, the fear, the lives.

Contrary, perhaps, to popular imagination but there is no special magic knowledge, there is no different understanding about how life works, or why, there is often no ability to change how things are going to be, when it comes down to lives. Yes, of course there is knowledge about what drug, what chemo, what drip, what operation.

Of course there are educated guesses about how long, or how short. But I too was just another person, another feeling, mortal person.

And the knowledge that I couldn’t solve the harms from a life relentless in its harshness, or that I couldn’t tell you that that shadow wasn’t a cancer that had spread, or that I’m sorry, yes, yes that was your girlfriend who was crushed by that truck, and the horrible, horrible knowledge that it was somehow my fault, that it was somehow for me to change this, and that I had to decide, that there was never going to be enough books or enough learning or enough time to know everything, that there would sometimes be nothing that I or anyone else could do, that I too would forget the name of that drug, that I would feel that deep, deep freeze in my veins as I look at a patient and I know, I know that they are dying and it is up to me to try to change that, or that 4am moment trying to calculate your child’s medicine dose for their potentially fatal asthma attack, where I think: what the hell am I doing?

And so I got scared, and so I stepped away from it, from you all. And it was, it is, heart-wrenching, because, let me tell you something. I loved it. I loved caring for you like I would want someone to care for my people. I loved that hard work meant a day working hard for you.

I promise you, this isn’t bullshit. I’m not trying to look brave or kind or selfless because I am not. But this is the truth.

I still remember the first patient that died, and the last. I still remember telling you about the kidney cancer, and you about your Dad.

I still remember suturing your head, your leg, your chest. It never felt very real, and it still doesn’t now it is over. Four years. Four years, of the most terrifying, loving, best, worst, incredible, awful, panicky caring terrible time of my life. So thank you.

I am going to try and use that knowledge of you all to continue caring about you and your health. But from afar. Because, yes, I loved it, but it near almost broke me.

So thank you to all you doctors out there for still doing it. And I know that a lot of you get close to that too, so thank you, thank you, thank you and please, take care of yourselves. But the right thing for me to do was leave.

Lily McRae is a public health registrar. She writes under a pseudonym, and was one of the runners-up in this year’s BMA writing competition