Anyone who knows me will testify that I do not lack passion. They would tell you that when I believe in a cause I will go the distance, take the necessary action… However dramatic. Aged 16 sitting down in the street during a protest against the Iraq war. Coordinating the staging of a ‘die-in’ outside an arms trade expo as a student. I’m bolshy enough.
Among my great passions is healthcare free at the point of access for everyone. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, geography, class… of whether they pay taxes. Yes, even Starbucks and Amazon CEOs. Hm. Maybe. In my country, the NHS embodies this. I love this institution. I love being part of it. As long as my children were well cared-for in my absence and my basic material needs were met, I’d even do my job for free. I’m passionate about providing high quality care. About treating my patients as I’d want my children and my parents treated. That’s why I come in early, stay late, go without food and water and toilet breaks. You don’t need those if you don’t have time to drink anyway.
So it’s surprising to me that I’ve had to do so much soul-searching about whether or not to participate in strike action by junior doctors this week. I haven’t flinched over the last strike actions. But this week is different. It sees the removal of emergency care. Strike action that calls for even those of us in acute specialities such as mine to down tools and walk out of the building 8am-5pm for two consecutive days.
I’ve had to ask myself some questions.
Do I doubt the cause? No. The contract due to be imposed on junior doctors across England from August is unfair and unsafe.
It’s unfair that I’ll probably lose out financially. I don’t care about money. I really don’t. As long as I can afford the basics. But even those may be called into question under the new contract. And I need time with my husband and children on days of the week when they are not at work or in school. My 5 year old does not think Saturday morning is a normal working day. BUT, although I’m not sure what unfair changes will be necessary for my family from August, my faith in a God who does immeasurably more than meet my basic needs tells me that we will be okay.
The contract is unsafe. And this is my biggest worry. Spreading the same amount of butter on a larger slice of toast equals a thinner layer of butter, no? Doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work that one out. Or a renal physician. They’re actually the cleverest out of the lot of us. The proposed rota changes are eye-watering. Doctors will be sleep-deprived and jet-lagged. Finishing a night shift one morning (still sleep-deprived from the first night) and starting a day shift the next day? It takes me days to come on and off night shifts under the current system. In that situation, do you want me holding the scalpel that delivers your baby? Your bladder, bowels and your baby certainly aren’t keen.
Most importantly though, I believe that breaking junior doctors would be a major step on the road to success for a health secretary who has admitted that privatising the NHS is a desirable goal.
So, no. I don’t doubt the cause.
Am I worried that patient safety will be compromised during strike action? I can honestly say that I do not believe a single patient will come to harm in my department. We have a huge team of non-training grade and consultant doctors who are loving the chance to cover for us. Because they believe in this cause too. And because they actually miss the kind of patient contact you get on the front line. I’m not lying, one of them actually said that. We might have had to show one of our most senior consultants how to use a bleep, but we’re all sorted now. He’s got his bleep license.
So why the hesitancy then? Why not strike?
Because of a bit of me worries about what it says to my patients that I would leave them in their hour of need. In their emergencies. I became a doctor to help people. I have compassion. Can I walk away?
So I did what I do as a follower of Jesus. I asked God. Because I’m used to him answering, directing, guiding me. And with all my actions, I live to honour Him. I hate it when he tells me the choice is up to me. But that’s what He did. Both options are okay.
So I did what I do as a doctor. I weighed up the risks and the benefits. We’re good at that.
I have decided to strike. Because my patients will be fine tomorrow. But they will not be fine when the new contract is imposed and I cannot look after them to an adequate standard because I am spread too thinly. This butter will melt into the toast and you won’t even be able to taste its saltiness. And because they will definitely not be fine when our government have privatised the NHS. Profit and medicine do not mix. Ask the Americans.
I have decided to strike because I support my colleagues. Because we are a team and I want to stand with them. Because they need me more than my patients do tomorrow. Because I make a great picket-line brew and I have the best flask. Because at the government’s own admission the contract discriminates against women, doctors doing much-needed research and single parents. Because I have a friend who is a female medical student who wants to have babies one day and is seriously doubtful as to whether that’s possible in the post-imposition world.
God doesn’t need me to strike to save the NHS. He can do all things. I could go to work and pray for justice for myself, my colleagues and my patients. I believe he’d be more than okay with that. But I also believe He gave me passion for a reason. And He also made me pretty good at non-violent direct action. And I’m pretty sure He’s okay with me doing that too. But most of all I’ll be praying. For all of us and our beloved old lady, the NHS and all the people who have the passion and privilege to care for.