Are you looking to pursue a career in medicine? Following on from this year’s Clinical Placement Competition, asking medical students “What does being a doctor mean to you?” – we are hoping to broaden our understanding of the medical profession, and appreciate exactly what being a doctor means in practice. What stories of highlights, difficulties, and uncensored advice can current doctors pass on, and how can we help those starting out? With this in mind, we caught up with Lara Coppel, author of OSCE Questions for the Primary FRCA, and Anaesthetic Registrar at the Imperial School of Anaesthesia, London, to discover the highs and lows of daily life as a doctor.
A little bit of background…
I have been a doctor for more than 13 years now and my training has taken me to the far-flung corners of the country and beyond. I have worked all over England, as well as in Johannesburg, South Africa. My family often joke that I travel the world via its hospitals! Their other favourite joke relates to the amount of time I have spent doing exams – which every junior doctor in the United Kingdom knows is not really a laughing matter. Although I got there in the end, I spent what felt like many grueling years doing my two main professional qualifications. I had intended on completing the hat-trick with a third, but narrowly escaped, much to the relief of my other half!
Tell us about your personal highlights?
Over the course of my career, there have definitely been more highs than lows.
I have always enjoyed working with other people and I have really appreciated the camaraderie that exists in medicine. Being part of a medical firm or a team on nights is reassuring and confidence building; knowing that you will get through whatever is thrown at you together. The jokes and banter we had working fifteen hour days, and helping each other out when our own personal workloads got too much, kept me going. Whilst anaesthetics has a reputation for being a solitary speciality, I have not found this to be the case. I have made close friends, and have found some of the most supportive colleagues – those who make you laugh when you feel like crying, offer support during more challenging days, and who are there at 3am when your decision making might not be at its finest…
Many highlights of course relate to my patients. I appreciate and have felt rewarded by the opportunity of being part of pivotal moments in people’s lives, hearing their stories, and contributing to their care. I have many uplifting memories but a few include giving a spinal anaesthetic to a lady who was giving birth to twins after having tried to have children for ten years with fourteen miscarriages along the way, providing lifesaving treatment for a young woman who developed severe sepsis and who recovered completely because of our rapid interventions, and when a young man I had looked after as an inpatient for more three months with severe Crohn’s disease and its complications – was finally able to go home.
And the challenges?
Being a hospital doctor can be hard. There are often long hours, high expectations, and patient outcomes are not always good or expected. This can be challenging to deal with, day in day out, year after year, especially if you are trying to accommodate a life beyond your job. I generally find my job pleasurable, but there have been occasions when I have made the wrong decision in retrospect, when there was simply too much work to do, or interventions didn’t go as expected. These situations can often be difficult, stressful and heart-breaking to deal with. To give just a few examples of the tougher cases, a young man with a complication of AIDS who initially responded to treatment and looked set to be going home, until he began to deteriorate and despite time, effort and lots of medical interventions, he died; another young man who I looked after for months with alcoholic hepatitis who was discharged home “never to drink again”, was readmitted three weeks later with problems which proved to be fatal; and a young lady who, two weeks after giving birth to her first child, had what turned out to be an ultimately fatal dissection of her internal carotid artery as a result of an undiagnosed connective tissue disorder.
There have also been non clinical challenges along the way — the pressures of exams for one. I did not pass all my exams first time, and having to pick myself up, dust myself off, face my colleagues at work, and then begin the cycle of working and revising again was at times demoralising and testing. I was fortunate enough to get through these periods and pass my exams however. I also changed specialities from general medicine to anaesthetics after five years of medical training. This should have been quite a challenge, having to go back to basics, committing myself to more exams, being out of sync with my peers – but never one I regretted or found difficult to deal with.
And finally, what does being a doctor mean to you?
Although I have never been asked this question before, I have been asked a variation on it many times at interviews for medical school and jobs.
For me, I still get excited to learn about the human body, how drugs can interact with the body and watching their effect, and seeing how mechanical equipment can be used to monitor patients or treat them. I still feel a sense of responsibility, pride, and honour that I am trusted to give advice and treat people, and I still feel grateful that I can help people or at least listen to them, and always have an opportunity to try and make a situation better. I feel privileged to be with my patients and share with them what can often be defining moments in their lives, and feel incredibly lucky to work as part of a team who each have their own areas of expertise, and colleagues who continually educate me.
The view is not completely rosy though; there are many frustrations associated with clinical life too – the endless paperwork, the different computer systems, the constant moving and rotating of jobs, and the constant pressure of feeling that you should be doing more or you could have done a better job if you had just more time or more colleagues around to help.
Having said this, throughout the highs and the lows – being a doctor has been an amazing adventure, and I cannot imagine doing anything else!
Featured image credit: ‘Open Health: Stethoscope’ by opensource.com. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.