Consultant General Paediatrician, Lead for Undergraduates, Lead for Paediatric Simulation
Tell us about your journey into a medical career?
I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. I can recall telling my primary school headteacher that was my career plan. I didn’t come from a family of doctors but my Mum was a medical secretary so I used to accompany her to work on occasions where the practice manager would give me sweets… actually, I think that may have influenced my career decision!
I was a member of St John’s Ambulance as a child/teenager and was good at science so I guess, it was an obvious career choice! I applied for medical school at the age of 16 and started at the age of 17. When I look back, I cannot believe the massive life choices I made at such a young age and feel extraordinarily lucky that it has worked out as I am not sure I really knew what I was getting myself into. I had obviously done work experience but the life of a junior doctor back in 1996 is very different to now… not easier or better but different.
When did you decide to do paediatrics? What led you to choose paediatrics?
Throughout my time at medical school, I was fairly convinced that I was going to be a GP. We did Paediatrics in our final year (I was at Birmingham Med School) and I felt like I had found my niche. I was in a busy DGH in East Birmingham with an amazing team – I later went on to be the Paeds PRHO (F1) with the same team and have great memories of my time there. I think you can’t really beat the staff in Paediatrics, who are generally inspiring, lovely and dedicated to the job. As an extreme extrovert on the Myers-Briggs, I realised that long term, I needed to work within a team and would have found being in a GP practice, in a room on my own for hours, quite challenging!
Looking back, I realised that all my medical school projects had been related to Paediatrics in some way, so felt that was an indication that was where my interests really lie, so maybe I had known all along?!
When you were a medical student, how did you envisage your life as a doctor?
That is really tricky to answer! I am not sure I bothered envisaging life as a doctor. Without wishing to sound really very old ( I am sub-40!), when I started medical school, junior doctors were regularly doing 96 hour working weeks and the EWTD was only just coming in. When I graduated, our working week had come down to 56 hours per week, so working life really changed in that space of time. The thing that struck me was that, whilst life was hard back then as a junior, the morale and camaraderie within the hospital was much better – the intensity was less, and teams knew each other well and supported each other (generally!). During my PRHO year, I spent a reasonable amount of time in the Doctor’s mess, we had a local lady make our lunch – she would make toasted sandwiches for less than £1.50 and bring them to you while you sat on a sofa – this was only 2004, so not light years ago. We had free doctor’s accommodation, although it was pretty grim and I chose to live with friends.
I couldn’t look further ahead than that – people talked about work-life balance and fitting family life into a career. I hadn’t met my husband at that point so, to be honest, I just chose the thing I loved doing and hoped it would all work out. I genuinely think that is still the right way to choose a career – life changes when you have children, but fundamentally, it is much harder to spend time away from them for a job that you don’t really love and feel passionate about. No one knows what the future will hold, so do something you enjoy and worry about adjustments when and if they need to happen.
How does the reality match or differ from that?
I think the reality that medicine is a varied and changing career, which constantly keeps you learning and finding out more will always remain. I don’t think you could ever get bored and I love the fact that no 2 days are the same. Paediatrics is full of inspiring and supportive colleagues and I think despite all the changes happening to training and working life, that will hopefully, never change.
What do you love about your work?
The patients! They are rarely the people who cause you grief – children are amazing – I love their resilience, the fact that they bounce back quickly when well and largely, have positive outcomes. I love their honesty and their humour – it really does make it all worthwhile.
What frustrates you about being a working mother?
Not a lot to be honest – I feel really lucky to be able to do a job I love and have children. Only a generation or so ago, many women didn’t have the freedom to do that and systems for childcare were just not there. My own daughter who is only 4 said yesterday that when she grows up, she wants to be a ‘Queen, doctor and artist and look after all her children’ – she is utterly convinced that it is all possible and she tells me that she will do it by ‘multi tasking’ – I love her ambition and the fact that for her, the sky is the limit!
I think the thing that is often sacrificed however, is spending time doing something for yourself – I can honestly say that I have very few hobbies (actually, none) – even without children, it’s jolly hard fitting something regular into a shift pattern and this just gets harder post children. I think the only frustration I have is that I would like to have more time to do something for myself – but it’s a season of life, and that’s what retirement’s for isn’t it?
Do you feel having children has affected your career?
Yes, without a doubt. I actually think these are largely positive – I look back at the advice I used to give new parents about feeding, sleeping, weaning and whilst, none of it was untrue, I do think I have a much more practical slant on my advice now, which is hopefully, much more helpful. I also think I can really understand the stress and worry parents must feel when their child is unwell – again, I always knew how stressful it must be but now I think I have greater empathy and I hope that comes across.
I think the negatives are that no one person can do everything – I used to be someone who said yes to every opportunity, and whilst I still take on a lot, I have definitely become better about saying ‘no’ and ‘not yet’. I think it’s important for your sanity – it is better to do a few things well than many things half-heartedly.
Do you have any tips for getting the most out of a medical career whilst still having time for your children?
I think the best advice I can give is to try and be fully present in whichever situation you are in. I don’t always achieve this but I think having excellent childcare means you can go to work, concentrate on that and not worry too much about what your children are up to, whether they are safe/happy etc. Conversely, I try to park worries about work and patients on my journey home so that when I get there, I can concentrate on being a Mum, hearing stories about their day, supervising homework etc and being fully involved in that.
I have 3 children but we try to find time to spend one to one with each of them on a reasonably regular basis – my son, who’s 6 calls these ‘dates’ – we went for lunch to Wagamamas the other day, just the two of us (he wore a waistcoat and a tie!) – he is still talking about it weeks later so I really think that quality time is worth investing in.
Do you feel female mentors have helped you manage your expectations or realities of being a paediatrician?
The career advice that I can remember clearly came from 2 female mentors – one, a GP supervising my intercalated research degree at University – told me (as she juggled my meeting with her and a phone call that one of her children was unwell at nursery and needed collecting) that if nothing else in life, I should marry a good man. I have definitely lucked out in this respect. My husband, whilst having a full-on career himself, definitely views family life as a team approach and has equal responsibility for our children – how you divide up the ‘work’ of raising a family will be different for different couples but the principle of shared responsibility is a good one.
The second piece of life advice came from a Paediatrician, who told me before I had children, that when I did, I should arrange back up childcare and back up for my back up. Again, this is good advice and we are fortunate to have willing grandparents living less than an hour’s drive away. I know many are not so lucky, but we do now have a group of local friends ‘the urban family’ who fulfil a similar role and we would for them. Having a community around you is so important in surviving this stage of life!
Do you think gender makes a difference in work-life?
I don’t think it does in a negative way in our jobs – there are the obvious things like many women prolong their training to have babies and work LTFT but I see this as a positive thing – I was very happy to delay my CCT and training for longer gave me lots of opportunities I might not otherwise have had.
Would you recommend your job to other working women?
Yes definitely. I think there are no perfect jobs, no perfect lives, despite what we see on social media. I think you have to pick a job you feel passionate about, one where you enjoy going to work and work hard at it. There are advantages of shift working – being around a bit in the daytime compensates for the long days and weekends.
What would you not survive without?
Genuinely, my husband – for all his inability to hang up washing, he is absolutely my biggest supporter – when the children are upset that I have to work a weekend, he’ll tell them all how amazing my job is and how I am off to save children’s lives and they seem content with that.
I read a (not very high brow) book about people’s love languages a few years ago – basically talking about how different people feel appreciated in different ways. I definitely am someone who responds to ‘words of affirmation’ – I can’t really live without encouraging words and really treasure the times when I have been complimented on how I’ve handled something or organised something – it is essentially what keeps me going. This is much more forthcoming at work than at home with small children (!) – and I do really try to pass on thanks and encouragement to my colleagues.
Also, gin – I love a nice artisan gin and fever tree tonic.