Monthly Archives: August 2009

And The Cry Went Up — SSMs Are Out!

I’m doing Clinical Haematology and Oncology.

After the disaster of my last SSM (those who were around in January will remember the Drugs in Sport debacle), my main objective was to get something clinical. On the one hand, this meant that I chose things a little more carefully and made absolutely sure not to choose anything that I wouldn’t be happy to actually do. On the other hand, it meant that I took some really stupid risks with the form, like not picking anything with more than about 12 places and not ranking things in my actual order of preference. Therefore, I’ve spent the last six weeks worrying that I would end up being assigned to something awful that I hadn’t even ranked.

But it worked! I’ve got the one that I wanted to do, in a specialty that I’m really interested in but isn’t a core component of fourth and fifth year rotations, with lots of clinical content mixed in with some lab stuff, at a hospital that I can walk to from my flat! Hurrah!

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Posted by on August 26, 2009 in Blog, Medicine


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It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

I’d guess that for the people whose A-level results came out on Thursday, the dust is beginning to settle.

For some, it’ll have meant waking up with a celebratory hangover. If that’s you, my heartiest congratulations. The only thing you need to do now is to enjoy the last few weeks of your summer holidays, let yourself get excited about what comes next, and not argue with your parents when they try to stock you up with bedsheets and twenty pence pieces and a month’s worth of groceries (trust me, you’ll be grateful for it).

For others, there will have been tears. There are many, many options open to people who didn’t make their conditional grades — re-sits and graduate entry, to name the most popular, and what’s right for one person might very well not be right for another. But when I got my A-level results, six years ago, I was in the tearful group, and to you, I offer this story.


(Note: A number of readers may have seen this story before. It was one of the first things I posted, back in August 2007. It disappeared with the reboot of my blog, earlier this year, and this week felt like an opportunie time to put it back up.)

I’ve submitted three separate UCAS forms with twelve applications to ten different UK medical schools. I’ve sat the MSAT and the GAMSAT and the BMAT and the UKCAT. I’ve had nine interviews, clocking up hundreds of miles and a gallon of GNER coffee en route. I’ve spent my summer holidays bringing up the tail end of ward rounds and sitting in clinics with doctors who’d had the misfortune of getting stuck with the work experience girl. I’ve learned many things since I clicked ‘send’ on that first application in my final year of sixth form, and the most important is that getting into medical school might be about the grades and the experience and the interview, but it’s also about wanting it enough and being pig-headed enough to keep going even when it feels as though it might never happen.

In the 2002/2003 application cycle, I received conditional offers of ABBB from St George’s and ABB from Kings. I was shitting myself an appropriate amount when I headed into school on A-level results day, but in spite of being nervous, in spite of knowing that my synoptic Physics paper belonged in the Edexcel Bloopers Hall of Fame, the idea that I would ever end up with anything less than exactly what I needed had never occurred to me. I was eighteen, you see, and therefore invincible. I don’t remember opening the envelope or exactly what went through my head when I saw my grades (although I do remember, with startling clarity, the look of utter panic on my form tutor’s face as I proceeded to thoroughly fall apart on him), but I know that I knew that BCCC was not going to get me into a UK medical school. I also know that I rang both Kings and St George’s, just to check, and that they very politely didn’t laugh.

The first thing I did was get on the phone to the Czech Republic. In addition to the two places I’d had through UCAS, there was an offer on the table from Charles University in Prague, and in that first half hour of not knowing which way was up, I rang the admissions office and accepted it, but I later called them back and unaccepted my acceptance. I might have been eighteen and invincible, but part of me realised that Prague was just too far from Newcastle and that maybe I was going to have enough challenges without throwing in the additional complication of a new culture and a new language. It was the right decision; I would go on to meet hundreds of international students and realise that I would never have handled it with anything like the grace that most of them did. I also turned down an offer from my school to stick around for a year and do resits, knowing that I’d be miserable and that in any case I would have trouble pulling those grades up to straight As. So, having not had the sense to use one of my spare places in UCAS to apply for something else, I took what seemed to be the only option left to me and I entered Clearing.

For the uninitiated, Clearing is like a rugby scrimmage with more paperwork. I spent two days on the phone. Kings had offered me a place on biomedical sciences almost in the same breath as they’d told me that my offer to do medicine had been rescinded, but, since at that point I had been planning to move to the other side of Europe, I refused it on the spot and I wasn’t surprised to find that all of their biomed places had been filled by the time I called them back. I got a tentative offer for biomed from St George’s, but they wanted to re-interview me and I turned them down because I was worried that I would be rejected and that everywhere else would have filled their places by then (and I would later discover a handful of institutions that had filled their places just in the time it took me to make that decision). I reluctantly called Durham, a university that seemed too close to home and too cliquey and wanted to send me to the middle of nowhere for my degree. I did it because my best friend, who performed a hundred miracles that week, dialled the phone and put it in my hand. I still don’t know what made me agree to their offer, but it was an impulse that I’ve never regretted.

I went to Durham with the intention of getting my degree, not getting noticed by anyone, not embarrassing myself, and getting out. I had no expectations other than that I would be able to use it as an alternative route into medical school. I couldn’t have predicted how much I would come to love it, or how different a person I would be when I left. As an A-level student, I’d regarded science as a necessary evil and was prepared for a degree in biomedical sciences to be more of the same. I was taken completely by surprise. It was interesting, and it was exciting, and I was having fun with it. It sucked sometimes, too, like spending an entire Saturday in a library with a case history and a set of lab values and a precariously stacked pile of books that all added up to a disease that did not appear to exist, but, on the whole, the good days outweighed the bad days, and even the bad days weren’t so bad, not when they ended with the satisfaction of everything finally clicking into place. By the end of my three years, I had turned into a scientist.

And then there were all the things I learned that had nothing to do with biomed. I grew up, I worked out how to function as an independent human being, and I learned who I was and who I wanted to be. Those are things that are worth more than any degree.

It wasn’t planned… but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

At the beginning of third year, I submitted a second application through UCAS, and, by April, I had been summarily rejected by all four of the medical schools that I’d applied to. I put it to one side and got on with the business of getting through finals, and graduated from Durham with an upper second class honours before disappearing for a month of travelling across America. When I landed back in the UK, it was to a room at my parents house, a desk job in public transport admin, and yet another UCAS form.

A few days before Christmas, Kings turned me down for the third and final time. I was shattered and my faith was starting to wane.

I was interviewed at Glasgow on an exceptionally windy day. A complicated story involving trees on the line, the wrong kind of snow on the line, and power cables on the line meant that my journey was delayed and then rerouted. A series of frantic phone calls to the admissions office were made, and, in the end, I arrived with three minutes to spare and had no time to get nervous. Unsurprisingly, I have no coherent picture of it in my head. I remember being asked about my dissertation and recent developments in medicine and why I had chosen to ‘leave’ biomed, and that we digressed at one point into a conversation about Sebastian Faulks. I had no idea of how it had gone and I had months to wait for a decision. I logged onto UCAS Track at 7.10am on the morning of March 15th 2007 to see that my status at the University of Glasgow had changed from a blank space to my favourite word in the English language — unconditional. I screamed the house down.

It had taken five years, but I was going to be a medical student.

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Posted by on August 21, 2009 in Blog, Medicine


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There will be a citizens’ rally in Grosvenor Square, London at 5.30pm on Wednesday 19th August, kicking off in front of the statue of President Roosevelt. The aim of this rally will be to send a simple message to the American people via a banner that will read:



Pass the message on.

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Posted by on August 19, 2009 in Blog, Medicine


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We Love The NHS

If you’ve turned on the television or read a newspaper or, really, been alive in any way at all this week, you’ll know that there are NHS-related rumblings coming from across the pond.

I was sixteen before I knew that there was a fundamental difference in the funding of the American healthcare system compared with the funding of the British healthcare system. I’d lived my whole life in a country where we have universal healthcare. I had experienced at first hand the systems in Malta and Germany and Australia, where they also have universal healthcare. I was aware that no such thing existed in most of the developing world and that the economic divide would mean world-class healthcare for the rich and, very often, nothing at all for everyone else… but I had no idea that healthcare in America operated under the same basic idea. I mean, why would I? What possible reason could I have had for thinking that the world’s only remaining superpower wouldn’t make sure that all of its citizens were able to access medical care when they needed it?

The current ruckus in America was quite neatly summed up on last night’s Mock the Week, when Russell Howard said: “Barack Obama is trying to get free healthcare for 46 million people in America, and this has made him unpopular in America.”

This is completely illogical and downright stupid, but also true. I suspect that under normal circumstances, we would quite happily have left America to get on with it — having lived through eight years of the Bush and Blair Show, most of us have come to expect stupidity from the American government and to simply be grateful when that stupidity is aimed at domestic policy and therefore not the sort that gets us dragged into a war. Except that in an attempt to demonstrate the evil of universal healthcare, the Republicans launched an attack on the NHS. This has included the branding of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence as a ‘death panel’, the claim that Senator Kennedy would be thought too old to be treated for his brain tumour, and, of course, the piece de resistance, an editorial from the Investor Business Daily stating that Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless”.

It’s been referred to as ‘a beautiful hypothesis destroyed by a single ugly fact’.

And once we had stopped laughing at the Investor Business Daily for its inability to use Wikipedia, we turned our attention to the NHS. In the last few days, the NHS has been defended by the Prime Minister, Professor Hawking, and the BMA, and, more significantly, by the great British public.

This is what I believe:

The NHS is a national treasure. I got into this because I wanted to be a doctor for people who need doctors. I want to work in a system that — with all of its flaws and annoyances and red-tape — still believes that we’re here to treat a person, not a social status or a bank account or an insurance company. I am alive because my father lived for seventeen years longer than he was expected to, because he was given dialysis and transplant surgery that didn’t cost him a penny; because my mother’s emergency caesarean was necessary and so it was done, without a phone call to an insurance company ever needing to be made; because in this country we see it as our responsibility to look after our youngest citizens, especially if that means keeping a very premature baby in intensive care for four weeks at no cost to her parents. I have a grandfather who is 81 years old and has every comorbidity imaginable, but the NHS has never given up on him and he’s still going strong. I see patients who get better and go home, having never had to make a choice between looking after their health and making sure there’s still a roof over their family’s head. I’ve met a remarkable man who will be on thrice-weekly dialysis for the rest of his life, but who is so full of joy, living a full life and feeling good, and never, ever needing to worry about where the money’s coming from, which is exactly the way it should be. I believe that the grounding principles of Clement Atlee’s NHS have never been forgotten: a universal service for all, based on clinical need and not on ability to pay.

I look at the patients I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the family I’ve got… and then I look at the NHS, and I think, all of this is here because of you.


Posted by on August 14, 2009 in Blog, Medicine


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