You all already know how this story ends.
The endings are rarely the interesting parts. Did you read the first six and a half Harry Potter books to find out that the good guys win in the end? (Uh: Spoilers.) You did not.
It started on a hotel balcony in Madeira. I had deactivated my NHS email account in the baggage check queue at Glasgow Airport, but the second last thing I’d done before flying away for a week to a warmer, sunnier annual leave than was offered by February in Scotland had been to submit my application to higher specialist training in Acute Medicine. And because I am paranoid, I had submitted the application under my personal email address. Under a cloudless Portuguese sky, my phone buzzed. I had been long listed and I would hear about an interview in due course.
Or it started in the medical receiving unit of a Glasgow hospital that no longer exists. At quarter to eleven on a Saturday night a few summers ago when I hadn’t sat down all day and had clearly not yet made it home to my rapidly cooling pizza and I realised that this, this, was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Or it started in the medical receiving unit of a dozen other hospitals scattered hither and thither across the West of Scotland where through my years at medical school and in the Foundation Programme they had welcomed me in and given me work to do and shown me the nuts and bolts of how to be a doctor for real, and, where I had learned that, if you wanted, this was what you could do with the rest of your life.
And then it was spring and I was back under a Scottish sky, the April version of which is every little bit as steely-grey and rain-saturated as the February one. I had spent the previous two weekends printing out and putting together the required portfolio of evidence, a folder that might have served well as a blunt weapon if I’d run into a riot on my way to the East. I had spent evenings pacing my living room floor, trying to formulate an answer to the question, “Why do you want to do Acute Medicine?” Ideally, one that wouldn’t make me sound deranged. I had spent the previous evening as the SHO on call for oncology, replacing venflons and trying not to pull out all of my hair.
An early morning train to Edinburgh. A heavy wodge of paperwork. My good suit, and my lucky socks, and my very best terrified face, and a pressing concern that I shouldn’t vomit all over myself.
The most significant days of my life seem to begin thus.
It is five years since I graduated from medical school. I have just about persuaded myself that I really am a real doctor. I mostly don’t have the urge to giggle anymore when I introduce myself as one of the doctors, and most days these days I don’t actively expect to be stopped in a corridor by someone there to tell me that my finals results were all a terrible mistake. But as a brand shiny new junior doctor, I remember believing that the registrars were really the real doctors. They were proper adults and were very organised, and they knew everything. If it all went wrong and I needed to call someone (or maybe just scream really loud), the med reg would come. I still believe all that, and because I still believe all that I do not in any true sense believe that I am qualified to be one.
This is an awkward thing to not believe when you are on your way to a job interview.
But there is a little bit of point of no return to this kind of thing, and on I went through the door of the Radisson on the Royal Mile, my black suit and green-tinged face incongruous amongst the gaggle of short-and-T-shirted and frostbitten-looking Americans, and my imposter syndrome out in force.
An interview for a medical training post begins with an administrator who checks through all the documentation, and there is a lot of documentation. There is proof of identity and proof of registration with the General Medical Council, and, even though being on the GMC register in the first place depends upon your having one, your original medical degree. My original medical degree is A3 sized and entirely in Latin. And then there’s that blunt weapon of a portfolio, which contains proof of everything you have ever claimed to have done including things which are wholly unrelated to medicine. Two years ago in my interview for Core Medical Training, they asked what I was proudest of that was unrelated to being a doctor and I had to decide to talk about changing the world because I suspected no one would have believed me if I’d said, “being Ginger Rogers except with a thurible”.
My fellow interviewees and I took our places outside closed doors, waiting for the knocks that would signal the beginning of our half hour of torture.
“Why do you want to do Acute Medicine?” asked a consultant who I’d not met before.
I did sound deranged. But as the Cat said, we’re all mad here: we must be, or we wouldn’t have come here. I decided to go with it.
After ten minutes — and I think that at some point in those ten minutes I flapped my arms around and tried to design an ambulatory care service out loud — there came another knock. I gabbled out a run-on sentence about — oh, who am I kidding, like I have any memory of it. And ran.
The same corridor, another door. Andrew Lloyd Webber probably wrote a song about that. This time, I had a card to read about the clinical scenario that I would be presented with when I entered the room. An elderly man presenting with collapse, ?cause. This was more straightforward than any of the scenarios I had been trying to revise, which immediately sent me into a sort of flailing tailspin. My panic did not improve when I entered the room to be greeted by a man who used to be my boss and the information that he would be playing my 75 year old patient. I wish I could tell you what I said. I really do. I remember that I mustn’t have taken any time to organise my thoughts, because I vividly remember that I got a good third of the way through before I stopped and apologised and announced that I was going back to the beginning and starting again. I also vividly remember that the interviewer who wasn’t doing the roleplay looked thoroughly relieved after I had made this announcement.
Back in the corridor, waiting for the signal to enter the last room. Footsteps. A bang.
“Housekeeping!” a voice shouted.
We three candidates abruptly tried not to meet one another’s eyes, lest we giggle. That answered the question that had been niggling at the back of my mind ever since I’d arrived earlier that morning — been directed away from the business centre, been surprised when guest-looking people stepped out of the lift with me, noted empty trays and copies of the Times lying on the carpet outside rooms that were right next to the rooms we were all going in and out of. It seemed that we were indeed having our job interviews conducted in what were usually hotel bedrooms.
Not quite so weird as that one time I sat a postgraduate exam in a football stadium, but quite weird enough.
And then I ended with five minutes to conduct a “driving advice” conversation with a twentysomething professional HGV driver who had been newly diagnosed with diabetes, or so my card said. But when I made the mistake of asking an open question, he turned out not to yet know that he had diabetes at all. “This is a conversation that I’d normally take longer than five minutes to have but I’m on a timer here,” I tried frantically to project with my eyes to the consultant playing my HGV driver as I talked at speed.
Even this far on this side of knowing what the outcome was, my strongest memories are of all the spaces where I forgot to say things.
The end of the story is that I was disgorged back onto the Royal Mile, befuddled and blinking in the sun that had finally come out.
The beginning of the story is that in a little under three weeks, I’ll be a specialist registrar in Acute Medicine in the West of Scotland, spending the first year of my training in a district general hospital and my first six months trying to learn something about cardiology.
The end is where we start from.