The second episode of this series centres around Ged, a director for Health Education England and a clinical surgeon specialising in breast cancer. Ged’s path into medicine was anything but typical. As a high-achiever from a low-income family, he was accepted into an all-boys Catholic grammar school. After graduating, the two options that were suggested to him for his future career were either becoming a Catholic priest or becoming a doctor. He opted for the latter.
Ged describes himself as applying “to medical school not really knowing what I was doing…for the first two years, I was a fish out of water”. It was only when he moved from dealing with the medical professional from a theoretical to a practical perspective that he realised that this was a career that could work for him. He talks about how he “felt more comfortable” while working on the wards and how he “loved interacting with the patients.”
Ged’s early medical career would take a unique turn. Inspired by his Uncle Jim, who had worked on a cruiseliner and had entertained and fascinated Ged as a child with stories of India, Ged decided to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and work as a surgeon in Chennai, a city in India. He describes this as a decision which “completely changed my life”.
He witnessed 100s of people travelling up to 80 miles on foot, some of these people terminally ill, in order to seek medical attention. He also had to work in a setting of severe resource-scarcity meaning that not all of those who were ill could be helped. Despite lacking resources, Ged learnt from his experiences that “health care is all about people… health and wellbeing is completely dependent on the relationships between people.” “It doesn’t matter where you go across the world,” he continues, “you have the opportunity to learn from other people, it’ll make you a better clinician and a better person.” He has taken these lessons to heart since returning to the UK. He now tries to encourage current and future clinicians to do what he did and travel abroad in order to learn more about themselves and their practice.
Ged’s reflections bring us to the current day and a consultation with a woman in her 80s during one of the heights of the global pandemic. Speaking to her over Skype and noting from her comments that she was at the early stages of breast cancer, he urged her to come to the hospital for treatment. However, initially, she refused, stating quite simply “People with the virus are more important”. Ged describes being both disturbed and impressed by the woman’s attitude: the fact that she had been willing to sacrifice her life in order to prioritise those who were younger and, in her view, more immediately in need of treatment showed him how deep an individual human being’s connection to a sense of the greater-good could run.
Eventually, he managed to persuade the woman to receive treatment and she was able to recover. But attitudes such as hers and those of the doctors and nurses he has witnessed around him who have worked tirelessly and at great risk in order to combat this virus makes him feel that amidst all this suffering and tragedy we have been able to see “the green shoots of human endeavour”.
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