“The unexamined life is not worth living”
There’s an inextricable link between medicine and books. To a medical student books are both stepping stones and obstacles, huge tomes to surmount as much to absorb. Later, they become totems, a copy of the ubiquitous Oxford Handbook of Medicine, colloquially known as the “Cheese and Onion”, jammed into a scrub back pocket to ward off disaster and protect us from our own insecurities and our patients from our inexperience. Later still, books become mirrors, reflections that let us examine our own careers and lives.
Reading the rather wonderful “Your Life In My Hands” by Dr Rachel Clarke leads to it’s own examination. Dr Clarke writes with a prose that is both immediate and personable, dumping you straight behind the eyes of an NHS junior doctor, bursting bladders, blood-soaked scrubs, desperate tears and all. This book is a portal into our hospitals, coming at a time when it’s never been more important to be able to share the actual reality of the NHS frontline.
Full disclosure: I’ve met Rachel Clarke. We swam in similar circles during the junior doctor contract dispute. When she and Dr Dagan Lonsdale kicked off the 24-hour protest TimeToTalkJeremy, outside the Department of Health, I was working just up the road and went down to show solidarity. Unflappable, sincere, ever-smiling; she was hugely inspiring and extremely nice. A few days later I was sitting in the same chair.
Before this book landed on my doormat, I knew Dr Clarke was a great writer and a shining example of our profession. It was the parts that I didn’t know that made this book so surprisingly brilliant. Besides doctoring, her semi auto-biography takes the reader through her past life as a TV journalist, dodging bullets in the Congo, filming experimental deep-freeze neurosurgery in the US, casually bantering with Alastair Campbell and Prime Ministers. Weaved throughout this rich tapestry of past and present, Dr Clarke paints the powerful and undeniable picture of an NHS being failed through short-sighted politicking and chronic underfunding.
For me, reading this book forced me to re-examine my own career. Her descriptions are achingly accurate: of the crash-calls, the dark quiet moments with a dying patient’s family, the highs of a shot-in-the-dark diagnosis or a surprise success where it seemed impossible and the lows of the true tragedies, dealing with the pieces left behind. I have been there in every one. We all have. And now you have too.
And that is the true beauty of “Your Life In My Hands” – it brings to life with dazzling perspicuity, not a unique experience, but a ubiquitous one. This is a junior doctor’s life, as damn near as you can get without living it yourself. And even if you have, it’s worth reading for the mirror it holds back. I left medicine after the burnout of the junior doctors contract dispute, and then, like Dr Clarke, rediscovered my love for it again. Reading this book made me remember exactly why.
The NHS is consistently the number two top issue of concern in UK opinion polls. A “political football” to some, often those campaigning for it are accused of “weaponizing” the subject. The true power behind this book is Dr Clarke’s ability to humanise it. The irony of “Your Life In My Hands” is in it’s title, because once you’ve bought this book, you are holding a life in your hands. Once you’ve read it and experienced it, you will see the NHS one hopes, as we see it. And then, as Dr Clarke masterfully surmises, you will realise that the future of the NHS is not in our hands, but yours.
Your Life In My Hands by Rachel Clarke is out now.