How you did the right thing
Battles between the unimpeachably right and the indisputably wrong can make for great stories. They tend to be simple, morally clear… and best left to Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
Life is murkier than that, and in this year’s BMA writing competition we asked you for something different. For conflicts not between right and wrong, but between different kinds of right. Or the least harmful wrong.
We asked you to write about ‘doing the right thing’ – one of those sub-university entrance exam type questions that can seem infuriatingly vague, but never fail to attract intense, revealing and deeply personal stories from doctors.
You told us of the intense efforts to save the life of a patient who had wanted nothing more than to end that life, of your moral entanglements with patients and colleagues, of why the ‘right thing’ was that you leave clinical practice altogether.
But our hero is Sarah. Not her real name, I imagine, but a real doctor, somewhere, who might just read the tribute to her and recall a very difficult day she had as a medical student.
Students need to practise their skills, right? It’s in everyone’s interest, especially the future patients they will treat. Sarah and her fellow students were given that chance to practise. Gloves on, take it in turns… but something wasn’t right.
Oxford GP and clinical lecturer in general practice Andrew Papanikitas, this year’s winner, recalled the moment that a student had the courage to challenge what an experienced doctor was telling her to do.
The judges, as always a mixture of doctors and BMA editorial staff, thought he did so with clarity, vivid detail and a keen ear for dialogue. A discomfiting tension hangs over the piece.
It ends with a rallying cry: ‘When someone does not remind us of our ideals we risk trampling them in pursuit of ambition or flight from fear.’
The two runners-up from more than 100 entries were Derbyshire GP Jo Cannon and a public health registrar who writes under the name of Lily McRae.
Dr Cannon has won the competition on two previous occasions, and came pretty close to a hat-trick with the story of a difficult moral choice around a member of staff. For Dr McRae, ‘doing the right thing’ was the agonising decision to take herself away from direct patient contact.
Highly commended were entries by west Sussex consultant in rehabilitation medicine Lloyd Bradley, London GP Niamh McLaughlin and Edinburgh clinical teaching fellow in psychiatry Jennie Higgs.
All of the entries will be published in forthcoming weeks, with specially commissioned illustrations.
The BMA writing competition has been running for almost 20 years. For many of the entrants, including some who go on to be winners, it is their first experience of writing in a new style. They have found it cathartic and stimulating, and it has often led them to write more.
Read the winning entry by Andrew Papanikitas
Neil Hallows is BMA content editor and one of the writing competition judges. He wishes to thank John Chisholm and Felicitas Woodhouse for their invaluable contribution to the competition.