I had never contemplated being anything other than a doctor until I was having lunch with my paediatric colleagues one day. “What would you do if you weren’t a medic?” one of them asked. I paused before replying, unable to imagine a different life for myself. I had always wanted to be a doctor; the idea of doing anything else seemed somewhat absurd.
Morale amongst junior doctors at the time was low and trainees around me were leaving the NHS, some escaping to Australia or New Zealand, others leaving the profession completely. With only one year remaining before becoming a consultant, a colleague walked away from paediatric training to become a primary teacher. I admired her bravery.
“I would never leave,” I told myself. “Medicine was my life.” I have had mental health problems on and off since I was a teenager and after the birth of my second daughter, I developed postnatal depression. At the point of returning to work, I was on medication and in therapy but was still plagued with anxiety and self loathing. Refusing to let my colleagues down by taking more time off, I went back. I became more and more exhausted. Apathetic. Negative. The empathy and passion I had had in abundance had been replaced with resentment and bitterness. Irritable, angry, unable to effectively prioritise or process information, I cried all the time. And so it carried on until I was signed off sick by my psychiatrist.
Stripped of my identity as a doctor, I didn’t know who I was. I got worse before I began to recover but, slowly, I began to consider that maybe I could be a doctor despite my mental illness. With support, I returned to medicine and proved to myself that I could indeed still practice medicine despite having received a diagnosis of bipolar 2 disorder. My colleagues were kind and understanding but somehow, the passion and excitement that I had previously had for medicine was gone. I felt undervalued, unfulfilled and a little question kept popping up in my head: “What if, like my old colleague, I retrained as a primary teacher?”
As a doctor, it can be hard to see yourself as possessing anything other than a range of very niche skills. Someone suggested that I volunteer at a local school once a week and, quickly, I began to notice that there were plenty of qualities and attributes that I could bring to a new career in teaching.
Whilst preparing for my PGCE interview, I thought of countless examples demonstrating good communication skills. Extensive training in this area puts medics at an advantage when it comes to handling difficult scenarios. When asked about collaboration with colleagues, I spoke about multidisciplinary teamwork, using scenarios from my clinical experience. Up until this point, I had failed to notice how integral organisation and prioritisation were in my practice, as though somehow they were just ‘normal’. I spoke of managing a busy ward, of organising tasks, taking on projects and managing my time. I was also able to discuss teaching, audits, research and presentations I had given at conferences. How is it that, as medics, we fail to see this plethora of transferable skills?
I have been a primary teacher for the last year, teaching a class of 6-7 year olds. There is no doubt that my experience as a paediatrician shapes the way that I communicate with pupils, parents and colleagues. The relationship that I have with the children reflects the empathy that I showed to my patients and staff have commented on how pupils with additional needs benefit from my medical background. I don’t profess to be an amazing teacher by any means and I still have a huge amount to learn, but I do now realise that being a doctor has equipped me with a great number of transferable skills that I was blind to before.