s everyone ready?” I hovered on the fringes of the group gathered around the sedated patient, excited but nervous, too. I’m 17 years old, I want to be a doctor — and this was my first real-life glimpse of doctors in action. The consultant in charge was gripping the patient’s ankle as he attempted to manoeuvre a dislocated hip back into place. After a tense few seconds, and a lot of wrestling with the leg, there was a satisfying crunch. The job was done.
Back in July I wrote an article for Weekend about the difficulties of getting into medical school: there are close to 11 applicants for every place. I talked to medical students, academics and doctors about how I could boost my chances of at least getting an interview. One key piece of advice I heard over and over was: get some health-care related work experience. I volunteer with Age UK, but I knew I needed more – and that’s how I found myself earlier this month in the Emergency Department at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, where I’d been lucky enough to find a doctor willing to let me shadow him and his colleagues over a long weekend (provided I had proof of a CRB check).
It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. In the space of four days, I saw a range of specialities and gained something new and valuable from each. In the Renal Department I watched an interventional radiologist drain fluid from an infected kidney: I learnt all about plasma exchange in patients whose blood reacts adversely to a donated organ: and I was told about the shortage of donor organs and a South West Transplant Centre initiative called “Register and Pass it On” which aims to get more people to sign up to the NHS organ donor register.
I found the ICU Department a sobering place: one of the patients was a young child fighting for its life after an accident. In the Medical Assessment Unit I watched as the staff dealt with a confused patient suffering from alcohol withdrawal syndrome and a suspected pulmonary embolism. The highlight, however, was 15 hours in the bustling Emergency Department where problems ranging from broken wrists to overdoses, severe sepsis to cardiac arrests raced by.
I didn’t just learn about illness; a large teaching hospital like Derriford is the perfect place to gain an insight into healthcare politics — medical admissions tutors will expect me to have an up-to-date knowledge of the issues. There were discussions about budgets and contracts, and staff talked about recent NHS scandals and the challenges facing the health service.
I saw recent developments in practice: for example, clinical incident forms being filled out, part of a move to create greater transparency in the NHS. I saw the application of new technology, too: the CT coronary angiogram, an accurate new way of testing for coronary artery disease without the need for an invasive procedure. And I learned about the variety of medical careers. Not every doctor becomes a GP or a hospital consultant. On my first day I’d been baffled by the number of people in Armed Forces uniforms; it turned out there is a large naval base nearby and military medics spend half of their time at the hospital. One colonel, who is also a consultant in Emergency Medicine, briefed me on the positives and negatives of being a doctor-cumsoldier, something I’d never have thought of.
Over the course of my time at Derriford, I talked to as many different types of doctor as I could. Now I understand how an Acute GP differs from the kind of GP I’m used to, what Interventional Radiology actually means, and how Ambulatory Care works.
One of the most interesting things I discovered was Derriford’s link to the Masanga Hospital Rehabilitation Project. Masanga is a hospital serving 400,000 people in Sierra Leone, an area that was devastated by the civil war that ended in 2002 — in fact, the hospital was at one time used as a base by rebel soldiers. Clinical staff and medical students from Derriford can volunteer to go to Masanga to care for patients and train local staff. A consultant in acute medicine, who is one of the visionaries of the Masanga scheme, told me: “A career in medicine is what you make of it. I’ve always had an interest in global health, and so to be able to make a difference on a project like Masanga is fantastic.”
Being at Derriford opened my eyes to so much more than what being a doctor is like. It showed me the incredible reach of a healthcare institution, not only in the community it serves, but far beyond. I saw the enormous dedication and committment of staff — but also the tremendous fulfillment they get from it.
The NHS has had such a bad press recently, but I wish more people could see staff on the frontline like I did, and I’m very grateful to the hospital for the privilege. I loved every minute of mytime there and I’m more determined than ever to become a doctor. Watch this space!