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The Rockface

Yesterday, there were two big pieces of news.

Last night, PM Boris Johnson was transferred to Intensive Care at St Thomas’ hospital – incidentally, the hospital I am due to start at as a junior doctor imminently.

The news drove home several lessons for me, which are instinctive but were made all the more obvious: first, the virus is a serious threat. Just days ago we saw the PM looking snuffly and puffy-eyed, being characteristically bombastic on his videos from his self-isolation suite. It looked like he had the grit and determination to keep going. And just over the course of a weekend, this has all changed and now he has been moved to intensive care.

His prior bravado towards the virus – exemplified by his lax behaviour around potential patients – has been described as ‘brave’ by some, whereas others have said it’s all silly ‘posturing.’ Whilst I am sure it is true that the cabinet is rich in hubris, when you are leading a country in a time of crisis it is important to lead from the front. This comes with inherent risks.

I am not a Conservative voter, nor am I impressed with how the government has handled the crisis so far. But there is something to be said for Boris Johnson’s optimism. In a time of torrential negative news and upsetting insights into the difficulties so many people are facing, I don’t think the importance of this can be underestimated. When the heart sinks, optimism’s buoyancy keeps you floating. It’ll take time before we can fully judge his leadership approach, only after the whole crisis is over.

The second lesson that it highlighted to me is that this virus really can affect anyone. Boris Johnson was a pretty healthy 55-year-old, by the looks of things. Yet the fact that his condition worsened sufficiently to necessitate bringing him into Intensive Care, even if just a precautionary measure, is worrying.

I hesitate to say that the virus ‘does not discriminate’ – that’s probably not true. It’s clear that it does seem to disproportionately affect people from minority backgrounds, with potentially up to a third of critically ill patients being BME. Several of the frontline doctors who were first reported to have died because of COVID-19 were also BME. As well as showing us just how impressive our health service is, it is also exposing some of our starkest health inequalities – they must be addressed.

The other big piece of news was an email from my director of studies (DoS) at Trinity, telling me I had graduated. Laith Alexander, PhD MB BChir.

That’s it: nine years have finally come to an end. I’ve journeyed from lecture halls, to hospitals, then to the lab during my PhD, and finally back to hospitals. An exercise in colossal yet sustained effort. The ending hasn’t been one that I expected, nor has it been a beginning to my medical career that I particularly enjoy, but the journey has certainly been one that I have relished.

The email from my DoS started with:

I’m delighted to hear you have all graduated…

Well, actually that was news to me! It turned out our tutors had all found out before we had. The Clinical School’s email-merge, which had intended to deliver the news to each and every one of us, had unfortunately failed to work. Finding out about the end of my Cambridge journey via a slightly premature email was bizarre – I had to read the first line a couple of times, asking myself “wait, is this actually it?”

Despite its rather clunky delivery, the Clinical School’s news was very well received! I felt such a sense of achievement, even more than when I graduated with my PhD. Medical school had been hard and it had been long. Lots of exams, lots of assignments, lots of travelling and many, many ups and downs. The low points were solemn and lonely; the high points were captivating and joyous.

Ever since applying to Cambridge in school, I had a persistent feeling that I just wasn’t good enough. I suppose it’s partly through seeing the success of my parents as a constant benchmark for comparison, partly through some of the bullying I received as a teenager, and partly through seeing the successes of so many of my clever peers from school and at university. I worked so, so hard to prove to myself, to prove to others and to prove to my parents that I was capable.

But this was it – it was the proof I needed. I was good enough. I could do it. I had faced the challenge – which had seemed insurmountable at the start – and over years and years of resolute determination and stubborn hard work, I had eroded away at the rockface that was the Cambridge degree. I had finally bloody done it!

Despite the ups and downs, Cambridge has been a wonderful place to spend nine years. I have met people from all over the globe, of all different faiths, identities and backgrounds. This town in the south of England is a mixing pot of ideas, personalities and raw talent, the likes of which I wonder if I will ever get to experience again.

My time here has forged me and has shaped my ideas, refined my thinking and expanded my horizons in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible when I started. Like I said, it hadn’t been easy, but no journeys worth taking are.

When I rang my parents and grandparents to tell them the news, they were over the moon on hearing the news. The pangs of needing their validation are still there, I have to admit. But those feelings were eclipsed by the sheer bliss of hearing them so, so happy.

After I spoke to my grandparents, I remembered the times I would sit and watch the original Marry Poppins in their living room on VCR. My favourite song in the whole film is ‘Feed the Birds.’ Still today, it moves me to tears when I hear it. The song is a metaphor for the value of charity and compassion. Here are its middle verses:

Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
“Feed the birds, ” that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies

All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

The song reminds me how sometimes, it’s the little things that really make the difference – something small to you can mean so much to someone else. The same applies to every aspect of medicine. I hope I’ll remember that as I move forward in the next phase of my life.

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