Having just finished swiping through last night’s magical photos of the aurora borealis, I’m sitting in a medical centre in the Norwegian Arctic Circle, making sure we have all the cardiac drugs ready for the next round of ‘ice breaking drills’. I can see mile upon mile of perfectly white snow and ice out of my clinic window. Before replying to a little yellow file icon full of emails about upcoming student engagement events, I get a moment to acknowledge just how lucky I am to do a job I love, in a place I’ve always dreamed of coming.
I was the type of medical student that, today, I focus on most. Before I even started medical school I was planning where I wanted to be in life. There was no questioning that I was going to be a plastic surgeon. Before applying to medical school I volunteered at a local orthopaedic veterinary practice to develop my surgical skills; while at university I fought to ensure every specialist study module, or self-selected component was surgical-based. In my pitch for a Royal Air Force medical cadetship, I made clear my plans to be a plastic surgeon in the field, highlighting my youthful fervour and determination that nothing would get in my way.
I was understandably ecstatic when I found out I would be doing plastics in my foundation training programme; but frustrated that I would have to waste four months doing general practice as an F2, as is expected of all military trainees.
‘Who would go to medical school for six years just to be a GP?’
I once sneered across the union bar as a fellow fourth-year tried to persuade me back to his hall with the offer of a single drink. The four weeks I’d just spent sitting in the corner of the room belonging to a retirement-planning, self-proclaimed ‘failed-surgeon’ had done little to alter my pre-conceptions.
What I hadn’t accounted for in my blinkered, headstrong and naïve approach, was that the 16 year old (I’m Scottish, not a child prodigy) applying to medical school would be a rather different person from the one who would select a training pathway some eight years later.
My F2 general practice placement changed my outlook, plans, way of thinking: it changed my life
I was working with a team of people who enjoyed their job. My supervisor was a young, enthusiastic trainer who split her time working between general practice in the UK and short projects with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) abroad. She wasn’t a failed anything; she knew her shit. She was the polar opposite of the stereotypical GPs I had previously encountered. The blinkers were starting to be peeled back.
From my very first clinics it became abundantly clear that this wasn’t an easy job.
The breadth of medical knowledge required was vast. Patient presentations were often complicated. The level of risk, the chasm of unknown, was something I had neither encountered nor anticipated. And then Ann entered my clinic room (yep, I was 23 and I’d got my own room with my name on the door and everything!). Ann presenting complaint was a cold, but it soon became clear that wasn’t why she was here. Ann had three children, a dog called Poppy, a husband who had recently been made redundant… and a breast lump. A breast lump she had known about for at least nine months, but ignored. A breast lump that following my urgent referral to the breast clinic resulted in bilateral mastectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. During my four month placement, I was with Ann each step of the way. It gave me a completely different perspective on medicine and humanity.
In that one training rotation I had seen a plethora of patients with a spectrum of conditions, from the life-threatening to the sublimely ridiculous. Yes, the days were busy; and there was a lot of administration, but I was making a difference, which made me happy. I had purpose and for the first time in my life as a doctor had an element of autonomy in the care of my patients. I was hooked on general practice, and didn’t know how to break it to my growing group of surgically blinkered friends that I was stepping towards the cardigan-wearing (they’ve actually been back in fashion since 2010) dark side – I was going to be a GP.
That was seven years ago. I am now a qualified GP, with a portfolio career in the military, simultaneously enjoying clinical sessions in the NHS and Armed Forces, as well as teaching GP trainees, doing contraception clinics and studying for a diploma in sports and exercise medicine and MSc in Primary and Community Care.
Last week I went for a drink with a load of doctors my age. We all worked together in A&E as part of our training, back when I still had my heart set on the glamour of plastics. One of them offered me a 'Sliding Doors' moment I didn’t need, but gave me a warm, smug hug nonetheless. He was now a trainee plastic surgeon. Still not fully qualified; still not allowed to operate alone; and towards the back of an exasperatingly long queue of people looking to take residence in a few dead men’s shoes. He will make an excellent plastic surgeon, in a fascinating speciality, just not the speciality meant for me.
So there’s presently plenty on my portfolio plate, but my principal project – a personal priority – is to ensure that medical students, foundation doctors and those yet to apply to medical school, do not miss out on their opportunity to become a GP.
I work with RCGP to encourage GPs that medical students can relate to, to speak at medical schools. Accessible and approachable individuals with achievable job plans who can be role models. People you can send an email or tweet to and expect a reply. Because if it hadn’t been for Little Miss MSF, I might not have the job that I do today; I wouldn’t have got paid to spend three weeks in Norway chasing the Northern Lights on a juiced-up hummer every night; and I wouldn’t be planning medical cover for a climb up Kilimanjaro this summer. I got lucky – I want you to get the career you deserve.
About the writer
Dr Jodie Blackadder is a GP, with a portfolio career in the Armed Forces. She also teaches GP trainees.
This article was originally published in RUMS Review, the UCL Medical School magazine. It has been published by the RCGP with permission of the author and publication.