Tag Archives: life

The Power of Dreams

My aunty forwarded one of those inspiring videos about life and happiness. One particular message struck me. It said something about having a dream then making it happen. Of course, it is easier said than done. It is not quite that easy to turn a dream into reality but those people who are the happiest are those who had a dream then put their all into making it a reality. I have many dreams. Through hard work and luck, many of my dreams are already a reality. I got into medical school, I graduated. I applied and got into speciality training and I am gaining experience as a paediatrician. I met a man with a big heart, fell in love and married him. We bought our lovely first home, a permanent abode after my many years of moving from flat to flat.  I fell pregnant when we were in good place and the baby has been growing well with the easiest pregnancy. I am getting ready to realise one of my biggest dreams – giving birth and being a mother. So yes, my bucket is overflowing.

This is about my professional dream.  I used to think I would be happy to graduate, specialise as a paediatrician, get a consultant post and settle down to a routine. With the recent political shenanigans and the more I work in the NHS, the more I realise I want more. I want more out of my life and I also want to contribute more than the daily grind. Don’t get me wrong, I know in my current role I do make a difference to lives. There is nothing more satisfying that when I have done a good job and I know that parent or child’s life has been changed for the better, no matter how small that change is. However, many days I look back after a busy day and think was that worth it? Those days which are all about paperwork and administrative tick-boxing exercises that contribute nothing except to some faceless manager’s satisfaction.

The part of the world where my life started (Yola) is lovely in a lot of ways but there is a significant poverty. In terms of economics but also in healthcare terms. Nigeria as a whole fails to cater to the healthcare needs of its population unless you have lots of money to go private. The North-East of Nigeria is one of the poorest when you look at health outcomes. In particular, looking at childhood. The statistics (where there are any) are shocking. Nigeria, for all its wealth, regularly features at the bottom of tables for health outcomes. We are in the bottom 5 for most outcomes including maternal and under 5 morbidity and mortality. For the non-medics reading this, morbidity refers to how much ill-health and disease (sickness there is) there is and mortality refers to how many are dying.

Mothers naturally should come in a low-risk group. Most should be healthy young women doing what is most natural – getting pregnant, growing a baby and then delivering the baby. Young children, although fragile because they are not mature yet biologically are despite all of that resilient on the whole and have bodies that are full of strong healthy organs with endless potential for healing. What we are failing to provide is basic care. Basic antenatal care, trained birthing assistants, hospitals to assist in difficult deliveries and facilities for emergency caesarean sections (surgery) for those women who cannot do it naturally. Infections, on the whole preventable and most totally treatable, cause a lot of the morbidity and mortality in Nigeria. Many of the other things we provide here in the NHS is simple supportive care, allowing patients own bodies to heal themselves in a secure environment.

So here is my dream. I would like to set up a women’s and children’s health centre. Big dream I hear you say. Yes, I am aware. It will be a huge task. I worked at the FMC in Yola for 4 months in 2012. I saw how much need there was and the things that were missing. I know a lot of the patients we couldn’t help were those who lived far away from town and did not come to us until their disease was too advanced for us to be able to do anything. Mothers died in childbirth because they did not have adequate antenatal care so predictable problems were not discovered until it was too late. Preterm babies died because they were born out of hospital in environments not hygienic enough and did not get simple breathing and feeding support and early treatment with antibiotics. Term babies were born too small because their mothers were undernourished and unwell with treatable conditions during pregnancy but were not diagnosed and treated. Very few of the patients we couldn’t help needed fancy expensive medicines or surgery. It was simply too little too late.

On the positive side, those that did come to us in time had better outcomes than those suggested by the statistics I read about on WHO and the likes. Those preterm babies born at FMC Yola thrived and majority survived until discharge. Sure, their progress was slower than here in the NHS because of a lack of basic equipment and provisions like oxygen and breathing support, working incubators, labs, fluid pumps, parenteral nutrition for those too young to feed by mouth or through the stomach. But survive they did because they are little fighters.

So what I dream is to provide all those basic things to the mothers, babies and children free of charge if I can manage to raise funds or at the very least at the smallest prices possible to give those with little the chance to quality healthcare. To go with that, I would like to provide an outreach service to those isolated villages. Run clinics, provide immunisations, antenatal vitamins and nutritional support, teach about prevention of infections and when it is vital to seek early medical help. Central to that idea is to train some of the villagers to provide safe simple birthing assistance, supportive care for new-borns and how to diagnose and treat the most common infections and provide first aid. All little things but added up should cut the numbers of mothers and children suffering unnecessarily and prevent the many preventable deaths.

My grandfather listened to me talking about my dream and was (rather unexpectedly) downbeat about it. He pointed out that it wasn’t as easy as I was making out. Actually, I know it will be difficult to do and as I have never done this before, it is a monumental task. There is so much to do to get this off the ground. However, here is my plan. I will start small and do this project in stages. I will deal with the complications as I get to them. A journey of a thousand miles has to start with that first step. I have taken my first step. I have dared to dream and I have written down my dream in black and white. Now onwards and upwards. Watch this space.

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Don’t Sweat the Small Things

Sometimes in life, we allow small things which on their own are not significant to add up and turn into a massive problem. I speak from experience.  I am a creature of habit so I like things to be a certain way. To a degree, I do have obsessive compulsive traits. That is not unusual in a doctor. It takes a certain type of personality to go through medical school and then to work in hospitals and face all the horrors that can come with the territory. When I was living on my own, it was easy to use those OC traits for the good. Everything had its place in the little space I had. No mess was left where it was. Everything was clean and orderly. My personal life was organised to a T. In direct contrast, my professional life despite all my best intentions often felt out of control and at best, it was an organised chaos. Dealing with humans and ill-health is by its nature very unpredictable. You do all you can do and things get worse in some patients. In some patients, you barely have to do anything and everything gets better anyway. Which sometimes makes me question exactly how much we as doctors are able to influence and if it has more to do with patients than us.

Anyway…my lovely ordered life was turned on its head when I met and moved in with my husband. He is the spontaneous type who makes ad-hoc plans and also changes them (or should I say ‘forgets’) without warning. He is so full of energy that he cannot be neat. When he makes a mess, he would rather clean it up later. Later being in a few hours, days, weeks or even months in some extreme cases. I used to get really worked up about these things and ended up cleaning up after him because it was too much of a hassle to nag him into doing it. Then I started to resent having to come home after a long day’s work to organise everything again or use up my precious days off sorting. Now I have swung the other way. I have become an expert at turning a blind eye. I refuse to see the mess and I will generally not tidy up if it is not my mess. So whilst I complain less and I try to let him get to it in his own sweet time, it hasn’t lessened the stress it causes in my mind. I will literally obsess about the mess not being there.

Whilst I generally get on with my fellow doctors and nurses at work, there is inevitably one who is like a thorn in my side. In my most recent rotation, there was one such nurse. I will call her Nadine. She is a senior nurse with a lot of experience – this is usually an asset but in her case, she thought she could tell me how to do my job. I am usually quite laid back and approachable at work but I am certainly no pushover. I can’t be because as a registrar I have to take overall responsibility for patients out of hours. Well, Nadine decided because I was a new registrar that she had to question all my decisions, mostly indirectly. This really riled me because the decisions that I made were either straight forward or those which were more complicated were discussed with the consultant as per usual practice. I found that lack of respect very irritating and at the start of the job, I had to avoid any contact with Nadine until I could detach myself enough not to care. Once I realised by talking to the other nurses that it was not unusual for Nadine to give rotating doctors a hard time, I was able to maintain professionalism by communicating what was essential and just tuning out the negativity. What Nadine (and I) felt in the grand scheme of things was insignificant as long as I did the job I was there to do and I did it well. By the time I left, I think she had gained a grudging working respect for me.

I guess what I am saying is that I have come to realise some facts of life. Main fact being that most of life is not within my control. Fact is that there are many small imperfections and it is not always possible (or maybe even desirable) to make them perfect. I don’t always find it easy to let those little things go but when I do, it is less stressful. As long as I control those things I can control and make life as good as I can within my little bubble, I can live with the little things. Life is hard enough without sweating the small stuff.

The Cycle of Life Part 2

Mamie, my late grandmother, was from Mubi and Ribadu. Mubi is a large town in Adamawa State, even in the old days a thriving commercial town with good links to many other towns (that is until Boko Haram decided to move in). I understand that Mamie’s father was one of the successful merchants there and her home in Michika only came about long after her father died because Grannie, her mother was from Michika. Anyway, through one of her parents, she is partly from Ribadu too. My memory of Ribadu is of a little diversion on the road to nowhere, little more than a collection of huts that we got to by using dusty dirt roads off the main highways. Most Nigerians will recognise the name though because of the famous Nuhu Ribadu, arguable Ribadu’s most successful son. He was EFCC’s first executive chairman – Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency and suffice it to say, he went about his business fearlessly, bringing those previously seen as untouchable to account. He was loved by the masses and detested by the ‘elite’ who had enjoyed incredible daylight lootery for so long in Nigeria. He had to go on exile when he left office because of fears for his life. I digress, Nuhu Ribadu is a relative. Of course he is I hear the Nigerians cry. Everyone in Ribadu is related so therefore, he is definitely a cousin of some sort. My point is that before Nuhu Ribadu, Ribadu would have been a name no one except its indigenes noticed on the map of Nigeria. Now it is one of the household names in the country and no Nigerian should wonder about its origins.

The girl I want to write about was called Aishatu Mohammadu Ribadu. We called her A’i for short (pronounced Ah-ee). I don’t know how the arrangement came about but I remember vividly when she moved in with us. She was about to start secondary school. I suspect my mother offered to bring her cousin to Yola where there were more education opportunities. She was the oldest girl and named after Mamie so who better? She was as you would expect a little village girl to be at first. Timid and as quiet as a mouse. Pretty Fulani girl with her long curly natural hair. She was soon enrolled into GGSS Yola (Girls Government Secondary School) and on the first day, we lugged all the usual paraphernalia to the boarding school to check her in. I remember us walking around the dorms trying to find her allocated one. We did and when we had her things moved in, we said our goodbyes and left. I was in primary school then so it didn’t occur to me how hard it would have been for her. Not only to leave the shelter of her little village and move in with us but to then go straight into boarding school with girls from all corners of the State. She never complained about it.

She remained quiet for the first year or so and then by JS2, she came into herself. She joined the cultural club in JS3 or SS1 and flourished more with it. She came back after the first term of being part of the group and started to sing us their songs in her lovely voice. One chorus went:

Sai mu ‘yan Hausa cultural,

Daga makarantar Geeeee Geeeee (GG).

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.

Mun zo ne muyi maku wasa,

Wasan mu ta Hausa.’

(Translates roughly into: We are the Hausa cultural girls from the school of GG. We are here to entertain you, in the Hausa cultural way).

We particularly loved the bit where they introduced themselves and when she got to Aisha Mohammed (the Hausa-nised version of her actual name), we would grin out loud. Over the next year or 2, we learnt many of her songs (some by Sa’adu Bori, very X-rated for our age but who knew?). In the evenings when there was no electricity, we would lie on mats out under the stars and moon. She’d tell us stories about boarding school and we’d sing her songs. Her love for music grew and the first album she absolutely loved was Brandy’s Never Say Never in 1998. We all loved it to be fair but she learnt the words to the songs ‘Never Say Never’ and ‘Have You Ever’ early and would sing those songs so hauntingly that I can’t hear now even today without thinking about A’i. Just hearing someone utter the words ‘never say never’ evokes memories of A’i to me. I suspect looking back she was going through puberty and probably was in love for the first time. Being a shy Fulani girl, we never heard or saw the object of her affections. In fact, in all of her time, I only knew of one ‘boyfriend’ before she met the man who would be her husband. I cannot for the life of me remember him but I know she suddenly relaxed her hair, started to wear makeup and took extra care when getting dressed to go out.

When she graduated, she met Hamma Z (his nickname) and we all knew this was different. She would light up when his name was mentioned and although she was shy about it, she never hid that she liked him. I barely knew him then because I was in boarding school in Lagos myself and he wasn’t resident in Yola but visited periodically. I heard she was getting married shortly before the event and as it was the middle of school term and we had moved to London then, I could not be there. I spoke to her though and she told me how excited she was. She sounded it. After the wedding, they moved to Ashaka where her husband worked. It is a little removed so it wasn’t on the road to anywhere we would normally go when we visited. I never made it to her marital home (this I am still sad about). One summer holiday, I contacted her to say I was coming. She promised we would see each other as she was planning a visit to Yola and Ribadu in that summer.

One day, there she was. I think this was in 2002. She looked beautiful. She was always pretty but she was glowing that visit. When she spoke of her marriage and her new home, her eyes shone. I was very happy. I wondered if she was pregnant and asked her the question. A little bit of the light dimmed. She clearly wanted a baby and it had been over a year. She was worried. I remember telling her not to worry. ‘These things are written,’ I said. Her baby would come when it was meant. She smiled and said ‘You are so grown up Diya’ in Fulani. I hugged her and we sat by the car parking bays at home in Yola, sharing a private moment. Once again, the two Aishas reunited under the stars and moonlight. Before she left, she told me about how quiet it was in Ashaka but that she had made a few friends. She told me about her small business venture and how she was now making some money for herself and her plans to make it more than a hobby. She told me about her husband and how he was kind and worked very hard for them. When she left, I promised when I came next time, I would make the trip to Ashaka especially.

That next visit never came. I saw her when she came for Mamie’s death. Then I got a call from A’i a few months later excitedly telling me that she was pregnant and to tell my mother. Her voice was exuberant and I was ecstatic for her. We rejoiced briefly before she had to go. Call charges to the UK in those days were astronomical but she clearly wanted us to know because she was over the moon. It was very un-Fulani of her to call and talk about her pregnancy so early. Traditionally, Fulani girls would normally never say a word until their pregnancy was obvious to everyone. I guess she knew with us being abroad, we had to be told to know. It was the last time we ever spoke on the phone. We texted from time to time and she let me know everything was progressing fine. She said she had never been happier.

One morning, I got a call from my mama who had moved back to Yola. She said ‘A’i has a son’. Her voice sounded sombre so I immediately asked ‘and how is A’i?’ Mamie had died the year before and since then, we had lost a few other people. I suspected the worst as soon as my mama began to speak. She said Hamma Z had been informed that A’i was taking a little longer than expected to recover from her general anaesthetic. You see, she had had complications which meant they had taken her into an emergency caesarean section. Although my heart was still heavy, I was a little relieved. I was a medical student then so I looked it all up and was a little reassured. Chances of dying from a general anaesthetic are slim in a healthy young woman. Looking back, I think she had pre-eclampsia or something like that but as usual, in the Nigerian healthcare system, information is restricted so all we heard was that she hadn’t quite woken up. My mama promised to call when there was news.

I sat by my phone and waited. When the call came, it was what I didn’t want to hear. She had died. We found out later that actually she had died pretty much straight after the baby was born but that was kept from her family. In a panic, they pretended she was still alive but unconscious. I was in the UK and she was buried according to Islamic rites so I never got to see her. My mama went for the ‘funeral’ and reported Hamma Z was devastated but their son was healthy and beautiful. When the next summer came, I went to Yola and asked to be taken to him. He was living with his grandmother then and was nearly 18 months I think. He was beautiful, like my mama had told me. Quiet like A’i was at first. His aunties and cousins told me how he didn’t talk much or take to strangers. He came to me and sat by my side all visit, leaning into me when I wrapped one arm around him, despite not saying a word to me. They looked at me in wonder and said ‘he must know his blood’. I smiled and agreed. Yes, he must. I felt an intense love for him at that moment and I wanted to steal him away. I also wanted to burst into tears. I knew how proud his mum would have been of her little boy and was devastated she never got to meet him.

His father remarried after many years and A’i’s son was reunited with his father for good. Although I have only seen him a few times over the years because they do not live where I go on my short visits to Nigeria, his father and I keep in touch and I am told he is happy. He is an adolescent now and he is so much his mother’s son. I looked at the most recent picture of him I have and saw his smile. A’i’s smile. He has her eyes, her nose and her mouth. His colouring and demeanour is very reminiscent of her. I still well up at the thought he will never know her just as she never got to meet him but I am comforted by the fact that she lives on in him. If I ever get a chance when he is older, I will tell him his mother wanted nothing more than to bring him into this world. That I have never seen her so happy than when she was with his father. Nor heard her so excited than when she announced he was in the making. That he would have been the centre of her world. That she would have done anything for him. That he would have been the most loved little boy, the apple of her eye. I hope I get the chance to tell him all that. Life!

The Expiry Date

This morning I read drkategranger’s blog regarding her expiry date (she is a doctor with terminal cancer who talks about death so candidly, it inspires. I would absolutely recommend!!!). The blog and some of the responses to it got me to thinking about death. I have already written about dying and the fact that I fear it not so much. As a Muslim, I tend to see death as just one of those certainties of life so I treat it quite matter-of-factly. This blog is will be further musings about my experiences of death. I will start with a quote from Hadith (Islamic teachings) which summarises how I generally see life and death:

Al-Hasan Al-Basrî said:
‘The life of this world is made up of three days: yesterday has gone with all that was done; tomorrow, you may never reach; but today is for you so do what you should do today.’ Al-Bayhaqî, Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr p197

I am generally an optimist or more accurately an optimistic realist so I try not to be morbid and I am generally not one to dwell on death. However, I have had times in my life where the thought of dying has crossed my mind. Last winter was a pretty bad time for me. I was working in the hospital that inspired me to become a paediatrician (which still inspires me) but I was in a job with a particularly toxic individual who succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere. I became depressed after 6 weeks of this. So much so that I hated waking up every morning I was scheduled to work. It got to a point that I would lie in bed, sleepless and think ‘would it be that bad if I didn’t wake up in the morning?’ As soon as the thought came to my mind, I would feel guilty and terrible. Guilty because I knew that my life really wasn’t that bad and that there was so much for me to be grateful for. Terrible because I knew my death, although insignificant in the grand scheme of things, would be horrible for my nearest and dearest. My mama especially. I got through those 4 months because my husband was there and would not let me sink into the depths of depression that kept pulling at me. Thank you George!

I am now back to my normal sunny self despite some current work horrors. As a newly-qualified doctor back in 2009, I dealt with death day in, day out especially on my first job on gastroenterology at a busy inner-city hospital. After the initial shock, I got used to it. Not that I didn’t care or it didn’t bother me but I dealt ok with it. There are 2 patient deaths from those days that have stayed with me. Both died of alcoholic liver disease. Both men in their 40s.

The first patient died slowly from hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). Basically with chronic liver failure, if your kidneys too fail, you will die soon because that means 2 of your 4 vital organs are dead or dying, unless you get brand new organs (i.e. transplants). As things currently stand, you cannot be put on the transplant list for a new liver if you are still abusing alcohol because the new liver will get damaged just the same and it is considered a waste of an organ that is in high demand but short in supply. So with my first patient, who I will call Patient A, when his kidney function tests declined rapidly and nothing we could do medically fixed it, we diagnosed HRS and my registrars and consultants had a meeting with his wife to inform her of the diagnosis and what that meant for the patient. He too was told in due time but because of his liver failure, he was confused and did not fully grasp the fact that his condition was terminal.

He deteriorated slowly over a few weeks but in the meantime, he would ask me daily when he could go home and travel to India to be blessed in the Ganges River. I would mutter something non-committal and beat a hasty retreat out of his side room. Initially, it was clear that his wife knew his death was near. But even she began to belief he would miraculously recover from his liver and kidney failure. Every week, she would say something that made us worry we hadn’t prepared her for the inevitable. Every week we would remind her gently that although she couldn’t see it, he was in actual fact deteriorating judging from his biochemistry lab results and worsening oliguria (he was weeing less and less).

In the week of his death, he suddenly looked well again. If I wasn’t the doctor patiently doing bloods on alternate days and chasing those results and noting the relentless rise in his urea and creatinine, I too would have started to believe in miracles. His wife upon seeing the light return to his eyes and his demeanour brighten plunged headlong into denial and joined him in planning their trip to India to the Holy Ganges River. Less than 24 hours before his eventual expiry date, it was devastating for me to watch her grief as the light in his eyes faded rapidly and he shrunk back into himself. Within 12 hours of his final illness beginning, his strength was gone and his mind with it. His utterings became incomprehensible and he became completely disorientated. The look on her face said it all when we came in to see him on our ward round that morning. We returned the look and she ran out of the room to sob in the corner. He was anuric by then (had stopped weeing completely) with a creatinine of over 400 (in other words, his kidneys had packed up). His liver function tests painted an equally damning picture. We completed his end of life paperwork that morning and when we left work that evening, he was hanging on by the tips of his fingers. We came in the next morning to the news that he had died before the end of the day before. The side room he had occupied for many weeks stood empty, awaiting its deep clean before the next customer.

Patient B was a young alcoholic who had developed liver cirrhosis in the months before I started the job. He had just turned 40 and I don’t think had any idea how serious the consequences of regular alcohol binges could be. Reality hit when another patient who was his ‘neighbour’ on our ward developed HRS and died rather quickly. All of our words of warning had somehow not sunk but with this other patient’s death, his mortality was clear to him. He called me over urgently that afternoon and said ‘Doc, I am ready to change’. I was pleased and felt a sense of accomplishment when I referred him to the rehabilitation programme. His wife found me the next day before they were discharged home to thank me for getting through to him. I was honest to say it wasn’t anything I did.

Unfortunately, he came in a few weeks later unwell with an infection which caused his liver function to deteriorate badly. I was encouraged to hear that he had no touched a drop of alcohol since his last admission. He developed litres of fluid in his tummy and I had to put in a tube into the side of his tummy to drain out all that fluid. He was in a lot of discomfort and fearful for his life and he asked me ‘Doc, am I going to die?’ I hesitated over the words I used but in the end I made no promises. Just that I would do everything I could to help him get through this. At first, it looked like the drain and intravenous antibiotics were effectively doing the job and the next day, the fear was gone from his eyes. I was encouraged by his blood results and left having ordered some more routine bloods for the next morning. Coincidentally, at I was securing his abdominal drain, I carelessly dropped the needle I was using to suture and when I went to retrieve it, gave myself a needle-stick injury. I had to get a co-doctor to inform him and take blood samples off him to check that he didn’t have any blood borne infections I could catch. He apologised every day after the event like it was his fault I had stuck myself with a contaminated needle. He asked me about those results daily – he seemed genuinely to care for my welfare. This went on for over 2 weeks as he slowly improved.

I was doing the ward round alone one morning when I was called urgently to his side. He was in a great deal of pain and was writhing in his bed with his abdomen larger than before we drained him. He was pale and clammy and his eyes looked like a man staring down the barrel of a gun. I could barely make sense of his words and as I changed his prescriptions, called the blood bank for blood products and prepared to get a new drain inserted. I could see the life begin to ebb out of his eyes. In a panic, I called my registrars and told them I needed them on the ward ASAP because patient B had taken a turn for worse and nothing I was doing was making a difference. The registrar told me to leave the drain for the meantime and focus on reassuring the patient. After I asked the nurses to call his wife in, I went to him and I held his cold hand. I looked into those eyes and I knew in that instant that he was not long for this world. I remember saying a mental prayer that he could hang on for his wife to be by his side.

‘Doc!’ he cried. I squeezed his hand and responded ‘Yes B?’

‘I am dying aren’t I?’ he asked. I looked down and swallowed the lump in my throat. ‘I am here for you B and I will do everything I can to help you. Your Mrs is on her way in.’

‘Stay with me,’ he entreated fearfully. I nodded and again I had to look away because the fear in his eyes was too powerful for me to take in. The rest of it was a blur. His wife made it in before he died but not in time for him to know she was there. He was delirious by the time she got to the ward and as he was slipping away before our very eyes, there was little time to have ‘that conversation’ with his wife. The consultant whisked her away and broke the news to her. She could see that treatment was futile by then and knew that he was on maximal available medical treatment. We had no more to offer. She signed the DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) forms and we set about making him less agitated. When we finally called it a day, he was less distressed, still mumbling incoherently and his eyes had started to take on that distant look I now associate with death. I came in the next morning to a request to come to the morgue to complete his death certificate and Crem forms so that his wife could lay him to rest. I got a call 3 days after his death to say his blood tests for blood borne infections had come back negative so I was in the clear. I cried in the staff toilets. He would have been relieved not to have put me at risk I think.

What did patients A and B teach me about death and dying? Firstly that when it is your time to go, it is your time to go. Life unfortunately doesn’t usually give you a clearly labelled package with an expiry date on it. Secondly, although death is scary for the person dying, it is actually worse for the person who loves them who has to watch them lose their battle to live and battle their fear of the unknown. Who has to go home and face life without them and rebuild their lives around the hole left by the dead loved one. Who for a very long time will think about their dear departed every morning when they wake up and every night before they fall asleep. Lastly, every human is unique. Despite having the same disease and modifying your risk factors, your body will do its own thing. We doctors can try to influence outcome but whether we succeed or not is not within our power to control. That is beyond science and medicine. That is life. That is God. That is reality. May we all depart this world in the easiest swiftest way possible. Amen

What does a Junior Doctor Do Exactly?

A letter written to Jeremy Hunt by a consultant currently working in England.
An excellent illustration of how indispensible ‘junior’ doctors are to the NHS and the public as a whole. I couldn’t have put it better myself so I haven’t tried to 😀

…………………………..

Dear Mr Hunt,

My name is Philip, and I am a consultant physician. Not so long ago, I was a junior doctor and like many others I am outraged and angry about what you propose to do with ‪#‎juniordoctors‬ and their ‪#‎juniorcontracts‬.

I thought that maybe, given you have not worked in healthcare, you might not understand what it is that doctors do (much like if I was made, say, head of Network Rail) so I thought maybe I can help you by shining a light on what I used to a few years ago as a medical registrar.

The medical registrar is the most senior medical doctor in the hospital out of hours. In explaining to my friends what we do, I tell them everyone who doesn’t need an operation right away, or doesn’t have a baby falling out of them, above the age of 16, is our business (and often we have to look after those too). We were the ubiquitous shirehorses that carried the hospitals medical workload day and night. And here’s a typical night shift I did at a general hospital. (all details changed and adapted from real cases to protect patient confidentiality).

I arrive at 8:50 PM for a 9:00 PM handover. It’s been a busy day and the emergency department is full. The outgoing medical registrar tells me there are no beds in the hospital. There are 10 patients waiting in A&E for the medical team, and a lot of patients need reviewing on the wards. He’s already admitted 36 patients during the day, and the consultant is still there seeing some of them with the daytime doctors. I wave hello at her as I head into the fray. I know the consultant and she’s not seen her kids since her on call week started. She waves back wearily.

My first patient for review was a young man with abdominal pain. My first thought as I walked into his cubicle, he looks sick. This is a skill you develop after years of training, when you look at someone and know that they are minutes from death. He’s grey, clammy and shocked. I immediately set about treating his shock and assessing why this has happened. Does he have a bad infection? Is he bleeding? Does he have a blood clot on his lungs? A quick bedside test confirms he’s bleeding badly, likely internally, and my surgical colleague (another junior doctor) and I urgently arrange for an operation. He hurriedly talks to his parents and completes a inacapacitated patient consent form as his condition deteriorates. I leave him in theatres with the anesthetists and surgeons as I have other patients to see.

The next patient was an elderly woman who has fallen. Although she has no hip fracture, she’s unable to walk and needs admission for painkillers and rehabilitation. I reassure her as best I can and stop many of her medicines potentially making her fall. There are no beds for her on the assessment unit or the elderly care ward, so the A&E sister arranges for a pressure support mattress and bed for her in the department overnight. She was lonely and depressed, and I spend some time talking to her about her worries and fears but after a while I needed to move on. She squeezes my hand and smiles, thanks me and settles for the night.

Next is a resus patient with an asthma attack. He is drunk and abusive verbally, though he’s too breathless to be too abusive. A blood test show his attack is life threatening and he he fights off attempts to treat him by myself and the A&E team, pulling off his nebuliser mask and oxygen. As I read out the blood test result to the intensive care registrar (another junior doctor) the man goes blue in the face, gasps and stops breathing. I drop the phone, run over and take over his breathing with a manual ventilator. He has had a respiratory arrest. Alarms blare, help comes running, we inject him with various medicines to help relax his airways and the intensive care doctor slips a tube into his windpipe to help him breathe. The consultant physician, still there, helps with what she could, running blood tests and helping to scribe in the notes. After a nervous period, he stabilises and we take him to intensive care.

It’s now midnight.

In the meantime I have reviewed five more patients, seen by the twilight team, and also my night SHO has discussed some patients with me. The consultant finally got home around 11PM. I’m now on the wards, a liver patient with severe cirrhosis is unrousable. I read through the notes. He has cirrhosis and is not suitable for a transplant. The team has tried everything. I sit and talk with his family, telling them I’m very sorry but there’s nothing more to be done. They cry, one of them screams at me that I’ve killed him, but I accept this as part of my job. With more assurance they’re calmer and I reassure them he’ll be kept comfortable.

My bleep goes off as I write in the notes. Is that the medical reg? The hospital is now totally full, can you please choose some patients to send to our sister hospital down the road? I groan, although I understand the necessity patients understandably hate it. I pick four stable patients and liaise with the registrar down the road.

2AM. I send my SHO off for a quick break as I review some more patients. A confused elderly man who might have a urine infection, a young man with severe headache, a diabetic patient with a very high blood sugar, a lady withdrawing from alcohol and hallucinating. The A&E sister makes me a coffee, lots of milk, lots of sugar.

3AM. I’m with a man in resus again, he is vomiting bright red blood in large volumes. He is jaundiced and looks unwell, very unwell. As the A&E team arranges for a massive transfusion to be set up, I ring the intensive care doctors and the gastroenterology consultant. He listens and says “I’ll be coming in”. I then slip a line into his neck under local anaesthetic, a practiced skill that’s hard at 3AM when you’re tired, but fortunately successful. We pour blood, clotting products, medications and antibiotics into him to halt the bleeding. The gastro consultant arrives at 3:40 and he’s taken to theatres where he performs a life saving procedure. The patient goes to ITU.

4AM. A brief moment to sit down for a quick break. I have reviewed three more of the SHO’s patients. This is the first time we’ve had a chance to sit down together, a quick chat and a cup of tea was interrupted by a cardiac arrest bleep. We run to the cardiac ward. A 54 year old gentleman admitted with chest pain by the day team has had a sudden cardiac arrest. The excellent CCU nurses are doing CPR and attaching a monitor. I ask them to stop as it’s attached, the rhythm is ventricular fibrillation.

“Back on the chest please, charge defib to 150, charging. OK, off the chest, stand clear, top middle bottom myself, oxygen away, SHOCKING.” The patient jolts. “Back on the chest please.” I heard myself say.

Two minutes later he has a pulse. We repeat an ECG, he’s had a full heart attack. I call the cardiologist at the heart attack centre 10 miles away. He’s accepted and an ambulance crew transfers him for an emergency angioplasty. I send my SHO back to A&E as I write a transfer note.

5AM. The resus doors burst open. Another patient, an elderly woman with breathlessness. The A&E F2 listens to the chest, pulmonary oedema. She’s given the emergency treatment but it’s not working. I decide to start her on positive pressure oxygen. Strapped to her face was a tight mask blowing oxygen to inflate her lungs, buying time for the medicines to work. The plan works and pints of dilute urine fills her catheter bag, her breathing improves and she says thank you through the mask. Despite the fatigue I smile and give the F2 a fist bump for a job well done.

7AM. Four more reviews. a patient with kidney failure due to medications, a depressed young man who took an overdose, an elderly nursing home resident with pneumonia, and an elderly man with a broken hip whom I assess with the orthopaedic surgeon. I start to round up the patients for the ward round. 18 patients overnight, five transfers out, one death. A relatively quiet night. I check with the clinical site manager and SHO that we’ve not missed anyone and click save on the list. No one is waiting to be seen, a good feeling.

8AM. The consultant from last night arrives, she looks tired but asks us how we’re doing. OK we said. We start in A&E as most of our patients are still there, the site manager is worried as some of the patients from last night are coming up to 12 hours in A&E. We review each patient’s story and tests, and talk to them about their condition. We visit ITU for the two new transfers there.

11AM. The ward round of the night patients are done, and I have completed a death certificate for a patient overnight. I climb into my car and listen to the breakfast show as I drive home, an hour away. I’ll be in bed by 1PM , and back for the night shift after 6 hours sleep. A relative luxury from a relatively quiet night.

This would be a relatively quiet night for a junior doctor and I am sure many registrars would laugh at how easy I’ve had it! But the people doing this work are junior doctors, who show dedication, commitment and goodwill beyond belief. They do lifesaving work up and down the country, working hard without complaining and sacrificing time with their families.

Please, I beseech you, treat them fairly and with the compassion they treat others daily. The new contract is not fair, and the extended hours it’ll cause is not safe. ‪#‎notfairnotsafe‬

I hope this little story will give you some insight into the vital work junior doctors and the NHS do. If you like, please come and spend a night at our hospital, I’ll come in with you and show you around. Please talk to my junior colleagues and listen to them, you may be surprised what you’ll learn.

Best wishes,

Dr Philip Lee

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.

On Death and Dying

My best friend confessed early in our friendship her fear of death and I remember being curious about why she was scared. Now looking back, maybe the question should have been why I did not feel the same? I mean of course death is not a welcome or happy thought but I don’t dwell on death and I certainly don’t actively fear it. I am very much of the school that there are 2 certainties in life: we are all born and we will all die. And since death is inevitable, I don’t think about it much.

Death is the final release.  Whatever one believes in, I think most of us believe that once you are dead, you don’t feel pain anymore. I know some people believe in reincarnation, some like me believe in the Hereafter and some think that whilst your body dies, your spirit never does and it still retains the memory of pain/anger/hurt/happiness. Although I believe in the Hereafter being Muslim, I do think that when I die, my soul leaves my physical shell and returns to its source (God). Then at some point, our lives are all assessed and we are rewarded (or not) for all our good deeds.

I wonder sometimes about what it feels like when your soul detaches from your body. I wonder if it is like a physical break, painful but transient or if it is more like an emotional separation where the after effects are long felt. I then wonder what the soul feels if it feels anything at all once it is separate from the vessel that conducts and interprets pain. Beyond that, I think death is more fearful if you are not the one dying. I mean, I would imagine that if I was in a terrible car accident, I would either die instantly with no time to think or become scared of what was happening. Or I would be in pain or feel myself getting weaker and weaker and it would be so unbearable that death would be a welcome reprieve. Same as if I had a chronic illness which was not curable but I was steadily deteriorating then dying would probably be a mercy for me.

When I think about dying properly, I realise that although I am not afraid of the dying itself, I am scared of some of the ways that I could potentially die. I am afraid after all. Being a medic, I have seen many people die so I have spent time thinking about the way I would not like to die. I guess one of the scary things about dying is that most of us do not have any idea when we are going to die. It is different for those who are diagnosed with ‘predictable’ illness but even there, giving patients a prognosis (i.e. a number of days/weeks/months/years they are expected to survive) is not an exact science.

In the past 6 months, I have come across patients who were not expected to survive being born and the first few days of life yet despite all odds, they are still with us many months later. I have also come across patients who were predicted more time only to deteriorate much quicker than anyone has experienced, giving no time for their loved ones to be prepared. The only people whose time of death can be predicted with any accuracy are those who are already brainstem dead but on life-support and when the machines are switched off, we can be fairly sure they will die within a certain time period. Even so, we have all heard of the ‘miracle’ stories where patients defy the odds and remain alive far beyond the expected time of death.

My ideal death would be the one most people wish for. I would like to die in my own bed, in my sleep. I would like for it to be when I am old but young enough that I am still completely independent. I would like for it to be after a family reunion where my nearest and dearest are all sitting around a table and reminiscing about the good old days. I would like for it to be after my mother has gone to her grave because I can’t think of anything worse for a mother than to bury her own child. I would like for my children (if I have them) to be old enough that losing their mother does not scar them too badly.

If I am unfortunate enough to have a catastrophic trauma and needed life support, I have told my closest family that I would prefer not to be kept alive for many days. I would like to be given a chance to recover (if there is one) but when it gets to the time where my chances of waking or recovering are much less that 50% then I would prefer for the machines to be switched off. I would like to be an organ donor although in my donor card, I have not ticked the skin donor thing because I am a bit squeamish when it comes to being buried with bits of my skin harvested. I don’t yet have a will but I have told my husband of my wishes verbally if I don’t get around to writing a will before the day comes.

I would like to be buried according to Islamic rites. I think the simplicity of an Islamic burial suits me perfectly. Washed and wrapped in a cotton shroud and buried within a day. If I am in my bed, the closest Muslim graveyard would be perfect but if I happen to be abroad in a strange land then I would like to be taken back to Kaduna, the town of my birth because that symmetry also appeals to me. Also my great grandmother and grandmother are both buried there so it would feel right to lie next to them.

When my grandmother died, there were a lot of tears and prayers and silence but there was remembrance every evening after the crowds dispersed and I found that uplifting. I think the sitting around the dining table and talking about Mammie’s life helped lift the gloom that surrounded us all. The fact that we could all remember and share our memories of Mammie reminded us all that although she was gone, a part of her was alive in us all. And that she had had a good life and her quick death was merciful. Those evenings also reminded us that life is transient. It is unpredictable and death can pick any of us at any time. In remembering our dead, we embraced life and were thankful for all we had been gifted with. I really hope those I leave behind can do that instead of it being all sad and tearful. May we all die a pain-free dignified death and may those we live behind be able to accept it is our time to go and may they have the strength to celebrate a life well-lived (hopefully).

Every Little Helps

Dedicated to Zainab ABM who has just said to me ‘please write more’. She is a fellow doctor, blogger, new wife, northern Nigerian young woman and generally a good egg. Just like me, only a few years younger. Also dedicated to my brother Abdulkhalid with whom I have just had the conversation about hope and inspiration and being the catalyst for change.

 

I am in the process of doing an online course on paediatric palliative care and came across a story that inspired me so I saved it and now will share it. It appeals to my firm belief that no matter how insurmountable the difficulties we face seem, all we can do as mere mortals is to pick a point. Any point relevant that forms part of the fabric of change and start working on it. My hope is that if many of us think like the Star thrower in the story below or like I try to think, then there will be many hands on deck, all making light work of the changes we need to heal our ailing world. And if like me, you like to ask why, I will tell you why. Because I want to be part of the change. Because I want to spread a little love and happiness. Because I want to have children and I want them to have something positive to aspire to.

 

The Starfish Story adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

 

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”