One of my – nay – my *favourite* book of recent years, and perhaps of all time, is Adam Kay’s THIS IS GOING TO HURT, a humorous and heartbreaking account of the life of a doctor on the NHS. It details, in no uncertain terms, why doctors are leaving a seemingly crumbling yet pivotal organisation because of a system that seems to have a finger permanently on a self-destruct button, running itself but more importantly its medical staff into the ground. (But I shall not talk politics here…)
It’s one of the reasons I’m in Australia at this very moment, having come out with my medic boyfriend, who is taking some time out before his specialist training back in the NHS, to experience life in the medical profession down under. So, it is with interest that I picked up Sonia Henry’s GOING UNDER, which I assumed to be an Australian version.
And although unexpectedly written in the format of the novel, I would say that Henry is saying much the same thing. Medics are seen – and treated – as superhuman, not just on the NHS, but across the world. But they simply aren’t. And although there are moments of recognition and hilarity – reading out loud brilliant anecdotes from Dr Kitty’s hectic life as an intern at Holy Innocents hospital to my boyfriend – it highlights a real issue. The pressures of a profession that not only asks of its members to hold the very life of their patients in their hands, but also juggle the circus of professional development, hospital politics, endless exams and abuse, all whilst running solely on caffeine, a crust of a sandwich eaten twelve hours ago and a running total of about five hours sleep that week, can unsurprisingly be too much. Adam Kay felt he had to leave a profession he worked so hard to enter and Sonia Henry’s whistleblower article a few years ago about the number of suicides in junior doctors is testament to this.
Saying all this, those going into medicine know it isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but in the darkest moments, 3 a.m. on a night shift, where it seems that every patient is crashing, you’re the only doctor on the ward and you’ve had no sleep, just having someone ask if you’re okay, or the smallest of kind words or gestures is enough to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. As I’m not a medic myself, I can’t speak for the medical colleagues out there, but as a member of the public, I have never seen the point of those who think shouting or abusing our healthcare staff is going to help. Admittedly, when you’re in a hospital A&E department at 3 a.m. in the morning as a patient, the situation isn’t likely to be good for you either, but perhaps taking a moment to think about those who are toiling to look after you wouldn’t hurt (and if it does, you’re probably in a lot of pain anyway to be in A&E at that time of night!)
As a book, Henry’s novel is both a hilarious example of contemporary fiction with a strong heroine and a brilliant supporting cast, but it’s also an eye-opening expose at what life in our hospitals is really like. The writing is fun and quick-witted, making it an easy read to begin with but as the harsh reality starts to hit, the tone changes and I found myself moved by the events of the novel. But the thing is, this may be fictionalised, but, for many, it is real life. Although not quite as broadly appealing as THIS IS GOING TO HURT – my boyfriend started to read GOING UNDER, intrigued by the subject but then put-off a little bit by the slightly women’s fiction vibe – this is well worth a read.
This issue is personal to me, having two medics in my family who I have seen struggle with the strains of the profession, so I apologise for waffling on, but also revoke that apology because it needs to be talked about and it needs to be discussed.
In my opinion, not all heroes wear capes – sometimes they wear scrubs.