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The Cycle of Life Part 3

I could write and write about the many lives I knew that were cut short in their prime but I will complete the cycle with this last blog about one of my oldest friends. His name was Nabil. We probably met as babies but the first meeting I remember was when I was 15 years old. We had moved to London the summer before and were getting settled in still. My mama came home one day and announced we had been invited to have dinner the Ibrahim’s on Saturday. Who were they? I asked. She explained that they were old family friends. The parents were my grandparents’ friends and although their children were younger than my mother and siblings, they knew them well as children. I am told one of the kids had even stayed periodically with my grandparents in Lagos when they were going to school there. She told me that the oldest daughter had 2 sons, one my age and I was going to meet them.

Although we both lived in North London, it was quite a trek as there was no direct tube route and we had to go on 2 (or was it 3?) buses. By the time we got there, my nose, fingers and toes were frozen and all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and sleep by a fire. I needn’t have worried. As soon as we stepped into their house, I felt my frozen cells begin to stir. It was always tropical in that house. Mum and Baba (the grandparents) like it very warm so there was never any danger of being cold once you got in there. I was introduced to the many adults, face after smiling face. It was like a mini-Northern Nigeria. All the warmth, the noise, everyone speaking Hausa. The boys were called down, Nabil and his little brother. They were instructed to take me upstairs until it was time for dinner. Although Nabil was friendly, he was definitely the quiet one. His little brother made up for it. He was very chatty, still pre-adolescent and full of excitement about life. Back then, he was quite small too. Very cute!

Nabil played us some music and told me about how they had only been in London for a year so were new to town too. He explained who was who in the family and we made general chitchat with his little brother telling us his fantastical half made up tales. We were in the same year of school and I was older by 2 months. By the time we got called down to dinner, we were friends. Over the delicious dinner cooked by Mum (his grandmother) and his mum, we talked some more. We exchanged numbers when I left. We stayed good friends over the years. We went to visit every so often and they made the trip across North London a few times too. We text occasionally in between visits. The next year, we talked about finishing year 11 and applying for colleges. I told him I was doing all the sciences and Maths because I would be applying to do Medicine. He said he wasn’t sure yet what he wanted to be so he was still thinking about which subjects to choose. We talked about where to go and I must have been convincing because I suggested for him to join me in Barnet College and he promised to consider it. He wrote down his address on a teddy bear notepad I had so I could sent him information when I had a confirmed place.

Common sense prevailed and he went to a college more local whilst I went to Barnet College. We went to see movies together and we even ate out at this stage, being all grown up at the ripe old age of 17 and 18 years. Every time we went out, he would insist on paying for everything and I would argue him down so we went halves. His little brother had grown into pre-adolescence by then and would irritate Nabil endlessly. His patience was great and he would repeatedly ask him to butt out of our conversations. I didn’t mind. I had a sister too and as the younger sister, I knew what it was like to be the little one. When we applied through UCAS for universities, he finally had a plan. He was going to study Maths. I was shocked. I mean, I was a straight A student and I got my A in Mathematics, an A* even in AS. I was no slouch when it came to it but to do a whole degree in Maths? I was agog! Why would anyone in their right minds do such a thing? He took my teasing in his stride. He said he didn’t have a profession in mind like I did and he knew he could use his generic Maths degree to do a wide range of things. I accepted this but I still thought him mad. He gave me that calm smile of his. ‘You’ll see’, he said.

As is the norm, we saw each other less when we went off to different universities. I went to Birmingham and he stayed in London. We probably saw each other once a year but when we did, it was like no time had passed at all. Ours was a very easy friendship. He would tell me about his ‘crazy’ Maths course. He seemed happy. I would tell him about Medicine and how much of it there was. How I realised more and more that what I knew was only a small fraction of how much I needed to know. He was openly impressed by how well I coped with it. His support and belief in my abilities were unwavering. Just like his friendship. I knew he was there somewhere should I ever need a friend. We text and Facebooked more than we spoke face to face. I can count the number of times we spoke on the phone in all the years.

Over the years, I would tease him gently about his girlfriend, or lack of. As the Fulani girl, I should have been more embarrassed to talk about such things but he was so shy about it. It became part of our friendships. I would needle him about ‘her’ and he would counter by asking me about my many boyfriends. I wasn’t shy about it. I had very little in the way of boyfriends but I told him of every encounter and how I preferred not having a boyfriend. He never admitted to any love interests but his brother was a more open book and I know there was somebody special at some point. He graduated and started an online sales platform. Next thing, he was talking about going back to Nigeria for his NYSC (mandatory youth service). He settled in Lagos. I happened to go the Lagos route once in his time there so I got to see him. He looked way too skinny and I was worried. As a newly-qualified doctor, I saw ill-health everywhere and was concerned he wasn’t sharing. He reassured me that he was fine. I didn’t need to doctor him. I believed him because youth corpers do tend to look the worse for wear during their year’s tenure.

The last time I saw Nabil was in Life Camp, Abuja in 2011. He happened to be visiting Abuja whilst I was there on a 10-day holiday. He was staying with a friend who brought him over. Again, I thought he was too skinny and he laughed it off. ‘Maybe I was always meant to be skinny like you’, he said. We chatted for an hour and he had to go. As we hugged goodbye, I felt how bony he had become. Life in Lagos was a hard one for a young man trying to start a business. My parting words were ‘You need to eat more. You should look after yourself better.’ His reply was a laugh and a ‘Yes doc!’ I stood at the door and waved until the car was out of sight. Not for a second did I imagine I was saying goodbye for the last time. The fuel subsidy crisis in Nigeria was the last thing we ever chatted online about. He became very involved in the demonstrations. I worried about his safety and he sent photos of himself and his friends at Lagos marches, looking happy and less skinny. He had found a cause to believe in. I was proud he was making a stand for a cause.

News that he was ill came out of the blue. I was in Yola, having taken a year out from working in the NHS to see the world. My mama got a call from one of his relatives saying that he was in hospital with a bleeding illness, cause still unknown. It was pretty serious and they were considering transferring him abroad as the healthcare available in Lagos was deemed inadequate. When my mother related the facts, I wanted to know more. What sort of bleeding? Was it related to a fever? Was Lassa fever the suspected cause? When my spoke to them again later, she was given more details. He had woken up that morning and told the friend he was living with that he wasn’t feeling too well. I think there was mention of a headache. He had been well the night before going to bed. His friend had gone with him to hospital and he either vomited or peed blood. The exact sequence is hazy but the gist of the story was that he had become sick rather quickly and what started out as an isolated bleed was now bleeding from multiple sources. He had been given a transfusion, we were told. He was conscious but seemed to be deteriorating.

When my mama related all of that news, I immediately thought the worst. When I burst into tears, she was alarmed. ‘He is alive,’ she said to me. ‘Don’t write him off.’ I tried to explain what I was thinking. I didn’t want to be a pessimist but unexplained severe generalised bleeding had a poor prognosis even with the best medical care. And he was not getting that. Not yet anyway. I had 2 professional experiences to draw on, both rather negative. My first experience of a patient with uncontrollable bleeding was in Malaysia on my medical elective in the 4th year of medical school. He was brought in by his heavily pregnant wife and a male relative to the A&E where I was working. He was very quickly diagnosed with Dengue Haemorrhagic fever. However, before any real treatment could be commenced, he went into cardiac arrest. With the medical students and his wife watching, the doctors performed CPR. It was horrific. He began to bleed from every orifice imaginable. His ears, nostrils, mouth. The blood was coming up the tube he had inserted into his lungs to ventilate him. The only part visible with no blood streaming out of it were his closed eyes. It was over as quickly as it began. It was obvious to everyone that he was far too ill to be saved. His wife was led away with the news.

The second experience was indirect. I was working in FMC Yola (Federal Medical Centre) and although Yola was ‘free’ from Lassa fever at the time, there were new cases being reported further south of the country. In fact, about 6 months before I had started working at FMC, there had been a patient with Lassa fever there and 2 of the doctors had contracted it from him. Unfortunately, 1 had died and the second had got to the Lassa Centre down south in time to be treated. He was one of the registrars on the paediatric team I was working with. So although he was okay, it seemed that mortality was quite high and only those who were diagnosed early and treated before they started actively started to haemorrhage (to bleed) were salvageable. Nabil’s story didn’t quite fit the bill because he had not complained of a fever and indeed had no fever in hospital. But it was my best guess with the facts I had and I feared the worst.

I pulled myself together eventually and prayed and waited with my mama. Next time we got an update, it was to say he was worse still, I suspect barely conscious at this stage. He was still bleeding despite all efforts and his parents were with him (they don’t live in Lagos). An air ambulance had been organised and he would be transferred abroad as soon as possible. We even heard he was being placed in the ambulance and I thought maybe there is some hope after all. That hope was short-lived. We got a call a few hours later to say that although his parents were in a flight to London, his air ambulance had never taken off. There were complications and unfortunately, he had not made it. I was so upset! All I could think is how his parents had no idea he had died and how they would have to make the return trip with that news weighing on them. To be honest, I have not asked them what happened exactly but it could only have been a terrible day.

I think the initial reaction of tears had taken the edge of my grief. I had started my grieving process before he was gone. I sat around in disbelief as my mama asked if I would be okay. As we made arrangements to go and visit his family, I could not stop thinking about how final death was. That was it for him, in this life anyway. I have no brothers so I whilst growing up, I found a handful of boys/young men to be my shining examples of decency in the male sex, my torch bearers when I felt dark about men in general. Nabil was one of them. Here was a gentle, calm, positive young man who believed in doing what was right, what was decent. He was respectful of God, his parents and our culture. He was a great friend and it was clear from the few times that I spent with him in the company of his family and friends that he was an all-round good guy. Losing Nabil was losing a little of the light in the darkness that sometimes surround men for me. Nabil was a good guy. Now he is no more. It took just over 2 days for a healthy young man in his mid-20s to sicken and die. Muslims would say it was time to go. I accept that but did it have to be such a horrible death? What did he ever do to deserve such an end? Why him?

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Champion the Truth

If you don’t live in the UK, you may have missed the junior doctor contract row that has been brewing for a few years but has escalated over the last couple of months. If you live in the UK and rely on major media outlets to keep you informed, you may think the dispute is about junior doctors asking for more money. I would suggest you turn to social media for more accurate information from doctors, other NHS staff and more importantly their families. Long and short of it is that the dispute is about our Government deciding we junior doctors need to work longer hours whilst our pay is cut and refusing to do the simple arithmetic that would show that if you want more junior doctors working around the clock, you need to recruit more of them because we are already working long hours and we absolutely will not do me as it would put our lives and the lives of patients that we hold so importantly at risk. I mean, how is it fair that the Government has voted to pay its MPs more and they can still claim vast amounts on expenses yet the very same Government says we have no money in the coffers to pay for more junior doctors? Isn’t that ridiculous???

I digress, please read up on Facebook, twitter and blogs writing on the issue. Plenty of truth out there is you care. The baseline is that at least half of the junior doctors who have voiced their opinions have stated either that they have made up their minds to quit the NHS or are at the very least, looking into alternate careers or going abroad. The simple truth is we as a group of junior doctors think the bottom line is that the Tories have vested interest to tear down the NHS and privatise our healthcare and hence line their pockets. There is also strong evidence out there that the current fool we call our Health Secretary has been a champion of NHS privatisation for many years and probably owns share in private health insurance conglomerates like Virgin Health.

This blog is actually about the one good thing that has come from this attack on junior doctors. We now have an online Facebook forum called Junior Doctors Forum which is by invitation only. It has 63,000 members and counting. Not all of them are junior doctors. We have consultants, medical students, nurses, midwives, paramedics and other allied healthcare professionals plus a few lawyers, journalists and even politicians about the forum. What I want to do is big up the passion of those on the forum and champion them sticking to their guns and being honest about how they feel and what this is doing to us as a group. Never has there been so much unity within the profession. Medicine is a very hierarchical and competitive profession and although we all start as one, we generally sub-divide as we become more senior and choose specialisation programmes. Our world then shrinks even further so all we know is related to the one field eventually. Our only contact with the outside specialities is if they are part of the multi-disciplinary team that we need to make sure each patient’s care is optimal with the inclusion of all relevant expertise.

So it is all good news though? No. Unfortunately when you get 63,000 opinionated voices with the top 1% in terms of IQ and ability to rationalise, debate and analyse, you get varying opinions. I am all for freedom of speech and embracing our differences. However, as with all other aspects of life, some are excessively worried about how other people interpret our opinions. An article was published based around a discussion we had on the forum and people are getting all uppity about all coming across professional and un-emotional. Why? If this was about professionalism only, we would all continue our stony silence whilst we get attacked as we give our all for the greater good. This time, we have stood up and shouted NO because not only have they attacked us (we have thick skin because of the nature of being medics who take enormous responsibilities day in, day out) but they are threatening the very fabric of the health of our nation. Their proposals are not only ensuring that many of us want to leave because we choose life and living than putting ourselves in danger from physical and mental exhaustion, they are also meaning that we are now less willing to carry on doing extra unpaid hours for no thanks.

The NHS has been running on the goodwill of its junior doctors for a very long time and things have been in a steady decline for the past decade yet this is the first year that doctors have threatened to strike. We love the NHS and have been carrying its weight to the detriment of our mental, physical and psychosocial health for far too long. This is the straw that will break the camel’s veritable back. It is because we are passionate that we are fighting the proposed changes which may start with junior doctors but we all know will extend to the rest of the hardworking staff the NHS is lucky to have as its employees. How then can anyone ask that we lie about how angry and betrayed we feel? How upset we are that we are being made to reconsider our futures? Whether we can afford to have children and continue to be there for our patients? How the lies of Hunt et al are demoralising us? How we don’t feel it is worth it anymore to carry on in the NHS when all we get for breaking our backs for a pittance (£11/hr 6 years after graduating for me compared to a plumber who can earn up to £50/hr) is abuse and an Etonian ignoramus vilifying us for caring.

Well, I am here to say that no. I will not be unemotional. If I didn’t care for the NHS, I would have quit after my first foundation year when I became a fully licenced medical practitioner. If all I care for was the money, I would be abroad today with a private clinic, dictating my hours and pay. If I didn’t care, I would not be attending protests and spending what little I have left over after my living expenses and medicolegal expenses on supportive merchandise. I care and I am not afraid to show it.

Hunt is only the face of the Tory campaign to break the NHS and leave privatisation as its only viable option. The Tory Government is libellous, dishonest, spineless and un-democratic. If the general public continues to buy the bullshit the Government is peddling, it will be the British public who will pay the price in the next few years. So unless you are all dying with something that will kill you with certainty in the next couple of years, wake up and realise facts. Fact is the NHS as we know it will be no more unless the whole of the British public fights this. Just google how much it’d cost you to pay for your health insurance in the US and imagine the UK going the same. Doctors are in hot demand the world over. We can and will be forced to leave the UK and the NHS is this horror continues and we will be fine. I assure you. So the fact that I am getting emotional is not because I am a greedy lazy overpaid privileged posh kid as Hunt and co would have you believe. It is because I care and I am not afraid to show it. Fact!

Save Our NHS!

Sharing this from a doctor’s facebook wall with permission because she says it better than I could express through the mounting frustration and despair I feel.

“I would like to tell you what the NHS means to me. It means that as a doctor. I get to think about what my patients need, and what is best for them. I get to think about that, above all else. Because my patients are someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s mentor, someone’s shoulder to cry on, someone’s friend. I get to value their life over all else.

I love that. I love that when I’m driving down a busy street at rush hour, and an ambulance with blue lights and sirens wailing, presents itself to this mass of people on the road – people with jobs to get to, meetings to attend, events to arrive at, exams to sit – not one of them stops in the middle of the road and refuses to let the ambulance pass.
Not one of them thinks their schedule is more important than the stranger in the back of the ambulance, fighting for their life. They, the general public, the person on the street, the people of Britain, value a stranger’s life above everything else at that moment. I love that. I love the humanity.

Jeremy Hunt says, he wants us to provide a 24 hour NHS. I think thats fantastic. I am pretty sure I have already worked every hour of every conceivable day to make up the 24/7 ideal. I work bank holidays and public holidays and religious holidays. I work often right up until I need to leave to catch a train to a graduation or a wedding. Sometimes I have an Emergnecy and I work past that. And I send my apologies and I lose my tickets. Because the person I am working on matters. Because I value their life over all else at that moment in time.

I think a 24/7 service is wonderful. It’s the dream. It’s like dubai at night. Or New York always. The service that never sleeps. I mean. I never sleep. Not on call. But, yes, sure, things can be delayed. It takes longer for one doctor to see 80 patients at night, than it does for a team of 4 to see them during the day. It takes longer for one lab technician to process 80 blood samples vs a team of 5 during the day. It takes longer for one radiographer to image 80 patients overnight than a team of 3 during the day.

The hospital is not just made up of doctors. We cannot work without our colleagues. Nurses, phlebotomists, pharmacists, radiographers, porters, health care assistants, scrub nurses, physicians assistants, and anaesthetics techs.
We all work together as a team. At all hours of the day and night. Because we value the life of the person we are seeing.
We would love a 24/7 service. But you cannot achieve it by taking the same doctor, spreading him or her thinner to cover the gaps they are already covering regularly – and then tell them that’s what they ought to have been doing all along so let’s slash your meagre pay by 1/3 for good measure.

To achieve the sort of dreamlike 24/7 service Mr hunt is selling and we all want to buy. The answer is simple. Create more training posts. Hire more doctors. Twice the current amount. Hire more nurses. I’m tired just watching them scramble night after night, running between rooms taking care of double their normal case load. Hire more ancillary workers. If you really wanted a fully functioning service, where 3am on a Sunday looks the same as 10am on a Tuesday, that’s the solution.
Don’t fillet and tenderise your already overstretched team to plug the gaps. And don’t turn the public against them because they have said that it’s not right.

What happens to our value as human beings? As care givers? As people who place others first? Where is the logic, in destroying one of the greatest legacies of modern history? In order to reappropriate the money as bonuses for management consultants who “told us what was wrong”.

I never finished my story about what the NHS means to me. When I’m done with my job. And that isn’t dictated by the clock but by when my patients are all stable. When I’m done I go home to my mother, who is terminally ill. Sometimes she is very unwell. And at those times I return to the hospital. This time not as a doctor, but as patient and family. I cannot begin to explain the relief in knowing that our arrival isn’t heralded by piles of paperwork to determine how much money we have to pay for treatment. They wouldn’t find much. I’m always overdrawn. I once laughed when I lost my wallet, because there wasn’t any point in cancelling my bank cards. They would find nothing in the account. I am 34 years old and a “junior” doctor that has been working for 10 years. But I have nothing worth stealing. That’s because I usually just get paid enough to cover my rent and bills. And when I need to do exams or get a wedding gift or live without relying on a credit card I would pick up extra shifts, working even more weekends and holidays than I normally would, which was already a lot.

Then, like a lot of my colleagues. I volunteer. I volunteer my services to local communities. I voluntarily sit on charitable boards where I help develop plans to help the most vulnerable in society. I travel to refugee camps to help those that unlike me, cannot make ends meet, have been forced out of their homes through no fault of their own, and now have no one to care for them. Very few people value them at all, these proud, resilient, insightful people in camps and on journeys – let alone above all else.

So I am grateful for the NHS. Because as a terminal cancer patient. My mum and I show up at our A&e a lot. And often at the most inconvenient times. 3am. 7pm. Weeknight. Weekday. The tumor doesn’t care. But you know who does? NHS staff. They care. They value her life over all else when she walks through the door – even if she may not have very much life left to live. They always smile. They always listen. They are always patient and kind. They are cheerful most of the time, even as their pagers bleep mercilessly through every conversation they have, alerting them to another patient in need of being valued.

They trundle away regardless of the time, tucking my mum into bed, helping her to the bathroom, taking her blood despite the fact that her veins disappeared under the influence of chemotherapy long ago. Patiently searching for those life giving green threads in her hands and arms. Listening to her chest. Poring over her substantial medical history to make sure they understand everything. Discussing the minutiae that may unveil what the cancer is doing this time and how they can best hold it at bay. There are no shortcuts even at 3am. They value their patients and the families above all else. And I love them for that.

That’s what the NHS means to me. Service that comes full circle.

I treated someone’s mum like they were the only person in the world that mattered right then. And later on that night, some other kindly fatigued uniformed intelligent gentle soul did the same for my mum. And sometime during those 24 hours someone was late to pick their kids up from school or collect their dry cleaning – because an ambulance with the most valuable person to someone else, closed off the road they were on as it whizzed past.
That. is Healthcare delivered as a right, not a privilege. That is humanity. So the only question, Mr. Hunt. (And anyone else who backs the sham of making an understaffed workforce doing the best it can to work twice as long for two thirds of the pay, and ensuring that women who have families and researchers who seek to cure terminal conditions like my mother’s can’t do their job, which is what they value – ) the only question is – What do you value above all else? Money? The bottom line? The shareholders? Your mates who run companies that want private contracts? A shot at being PM?

None of that will matter to you when you are ill, Mr. Hunt. I promise you. At that moment in time. You will value your health above all else.

More than that, you will want a team of dedicated well trained NHS employees to value you above all else.
Value.your.health.service.”

It is Not a Popularity Contest

Some people have thousands of friends (and followers) on Facebook (FB) and it makes them happy because it makes them feel popular. Or maybe they truly are friends with that many people. Lord only knows how they would have the time to have so many friends. What with so few hours in the day and probably needing to do something to earn a living (work anyone?).  But anyway, if you have that many friends, good on you, you social butterfly you.

At one point, I had more than 500 FB friends. I cannot remember what inspired me to look through my list of friends about a year after joining FB and I realised how many ‘friends’ I had not spoken to, called, text or even heard any news about in over a year. And how that lack of contact did not affect me in any way. Which led me to the conclusion that a fair few were not really friends. Hardly even acquaintances. So what did I do? A deletion binge. I looked through the list of friends and if I was struggling to remember how we met, they were deleted. I also deleted everyone I had not had any interaction with in over a year and those who were friends of friends who had added me and I felt obliged to accept but had actually never said a personal word to (virtually or in reality). At the end of my binge, I had less than 200 friends. That was nearly 300 friends who had access to a lot of personal pictures and thoughts and insight into my life that I had got rid of. I also then made my FB settings more secure. People cannot read many of my posts unless we are linked. They cannot see most of my pictures and they cannot send me private messages in many cases (if they do, I have set it up so it goes into a ‘spam’ folder). This experience was so cathartic, I now fondly think of it as my ‘spring clean’.

The spring clean is now an annual event. It is not always in the spring mind. It is whenever I have a quiet moment but usually once a year. Since this ritual started, I have noticed one thing. I don’t get ‘spammy’ messages on my wall anymore. I do not get ‘friends’ judging me because as a Muslim, I choose not to wear a scarf. Or those who judge me for cutting my hair. Or for expressing my candid opinions on politics, religion, gender equality, relationships, sexuality and other controversial issues. I do not have to defend anything I post on FB because what you see is what you get with me. If any of those who have made the cut decide to go all judgemental on me, I am not shy pressing the unfriend button. I mean, there are plenty of strangers out there who could (and do) judge me for all the wrong reasons. My race, my colour, my religion, my accent, my slim build, my honesty, my kindness etc. I think those I choose to label as my friends should be able to take me as I am. Of course, they are unlikely to love every aspect of me (let’s face it, even my dearest mama doesn’t love my stubborn resolve or my willingness to take on fights/arguments). They are entitled to their own opinions and they can debate their point of view but if we end up at an impasse, I expect them to be able to agree to disagree.

Lastly, being human with all of my flaws, sometimes I unfriend people who may have good reason to disappear off FB. God knows that I have done that on occasion so perhaps it is not a lack of friendship between us two. In some cases, I find that out and I add them back on. I will also accept them back on should they request me after I have unfriended them. In a nutshell, what I realised when the spring clean commenced was that if I do not surround myself with too many ‘friends’, I will expose myself to less B.S.

N.B although FB has many drawbacks, it does allow me my spring clean. Much harder to do in real life although in real life, I am not friends with people I do not get on with genuinely. One advantage of being a busy paediatric doctor is that my social life is limited so I have to choose carefully how I spend my precious time. Therefore, only true friends remain naturally. In reality, I would probably say I have less than 50 proper friends and of those, less than 10 that I would not hesitate to call and say I need you or can I come round for a cuppa? Less than 10 who I would call with good news as soon as I get it. Less than 10 who would know about all of my major upcoming life events. Less than 10 that I would not mind seeing whenever they or I needed to spend time together. The few who would always have my shoulder to cry on, my ears to listen and my laughter to share. Those who have an open invite to stay at mine should they need to. Those are my true friends. How lucky I am to have those few special ones in my life.