What I did at 50…
I’ve never thought, while grass-hoppering round careers, about ‘milestones.’ But 50 was a milestone.
The directions we take are usually influenced by those around us- plus a dollop of serendipity. I’m no different. At 10, I’d seen lots of doctors and decided I wanted to be one. At 17 I enthusiastically started medicine at Glasgow. At 22 my resolution wavered (I met my husband-to-be). But at 24, I qualified. Scary. And married. Lovely. My career plan? Hospital consultant. But the biological clock ticked in unbidden, so with no prospect of part-time work, at 27 I left for General Practice.
By 30 I was a mum and happy part-time GP. By 40 I’d had sprog 2 and had a passing notion of becoming a TV producer. The BBC passed… At 39 I wrote my first letter to a newspaper (The Herald) ranting about Thatcher’s NHS changes. The editor printed it as a feature and asked me to write regular columns. Other papers and medical magazines commissioned me. It was a great outlet for gripes and grumbles and passing on lessons learned.
My main interests were complementary medicine plus preventive and women’s health, but by 50 I was despondent to be seeing babies being born to babies I had delivered decades earlier coming into households still smoking, drinking, sedentary and dying prematurely despite our best efforts. And the excess computer data-collecting for the Government was wearing: too little time for patients: too much time wasted logging excess statistics no one ever looked at or used. You couldn’t ignore it or you lost money needed for patient services. Needing re-energised, I joined a Health Board Health Promotion Committee. Hopeless. They moved sessions to a Monday morning, our busiest time. No front-line staff could attend! Frustrating. By now my son was finishing a Masters in Biophysics, my daughter off to Sixth Form College the other side of Scotland and my husband enthusiastic in a new Pharmaceutical Society post. What should I do? Then I had an epiphany.
It was a Post-grad prospectus. My wonderful son had a bundle of these for PhD applications. Glass of Sauvignon in hand (vital for good decision-making in my view), I found an new subject: Medical Anthropology. A light bulb moment. Perhaps studying how the beliefs of the healers and the sick over past centuries and across the globe might illuminate how behaviours formed- and how they might be modified? But, hmm. It was a Masters, hard. And at the University of Oxford, harder. I applied anyway. My son wrote my personal statement. I didn’t recognise myself, but they must have seen something. I was interviewed, accepted and before I knew it, I was on sabbatical, a locum in place, rooming in a house attached to Wolfson College. By quirk of fate, my son also went that year to Oxford for his PhD. At first keeping out of his way, I discovered he thought it hilarious his mum was also studying there. Weird but enjoyable being a student with your son.
The year with Rhodes Scholars and classmates from around the world was life changing. I was forced to stand back and look candidly at my profession. Or, as my tutor put it, be ‘de-constructed’! I found some answers to my problem of how to change unhealthy behaviour. The greatest improvements in infant mortality and health have been achieved by educating girls. Kerala and Costa Rica are prime examples. It was a sobering thought to realise the best thing I’d ever done for patients was not prescribing medicine, but persuading girls back into college. My book royalties will benefit the truly anthropological and community-sensitive work of PlanUK who aim to get all girls into schooling.
Graduation was emotional. In Latin and complexly ceremonial with much bowing and nodding but a fun family affair. I returned to Scotland, made my sabbatical report to the Scottish Office and returned happily to practice until I retired.
But the sabbatical effect didn’t end there. I decided to write a novel about women doctors (absent from literature except as pioneers and pathologists) and signed up for Creative Writing classes at the University of Glasgow where undergrads were fascinated by our student experiences in the 60s: how did we cope without the pill (not available on the NHS to the unmarried) mobile phones and the internet for research? The book had to be set in the sixties. I published my novel, Not The Life Imagined, in January 2019, aged 68. It was runner up in the Scottish Association of Writers Constable Silver Stag Award 2018.
So my frustration at 50 led to an Oxford Masters, an obsession with promoting girls’ agency (ending child marriage, FGM and education) and a novel looking dispassionately at medicine 50 years ago when discrimination was the norm and ‘MeToo’ unthinkable. We need our doctors to be competent, compassionate, trustworthy and practice sexual propriety. My first novel, Not The Life Imagined, deals with sex: narrator Beth exposes a rogue surgeon. The second will have her uncovering a serial killer. Both are darkly humorous and entertaining- as well as thought-provoking. Medics make disastrous mistakes in love and life just like ordinary mortals.
My sabbatical also led to life-long friendships. A German classmate with a degree in Tibetan medicine took me on her PhD trip to visit Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim. With her, we’ve also sponsored several Darjeeling hills girls through school and college.
So, sit down and think. Have a glass of Sauvignon. Where next? I will be 70 next year though as yet unsure myself. Serendipity and Sauvignon may well provide the answer…