View From the Ground, by Dr Sarah Merrifield
Until a few months ago, I worked part time as a salaried GP, and dedicated the rest of my week to an academic role.
The bulk of the time I have spent as a GP has coincided with the pandemic, and I was starting to struggle. The relentless changing guidelines, media denigration, and isolation from friends and family were beginning to take their toll. Frequently, I found myself coming home from a long working day in tears and spending the rest of my evening in self-destruct mode, reading articles about how people in my profession weren’t working hard enough.
Then, in August last year, I received a phone call between patients that turned my entire world upside down. I don’t usually answer my phone at work, but I could tell that something was wrong. The caller ID said ‘Mum’, but it wasn’t my mother—it was a paramedic. My sister had passed away. I sat in my consultation room and screamed.
The next few weeks were a blur. Although I am familiar with the stages of grief, it felt like I had fallen off a cliff. I spent several weeks isolated from the world, speaking only to close family members, coroners’ assistants, funeral directors, and police officers. Was this real? I wondered if I would ever be able to work as a doctor again.
As the weeks turned into months, the fog started to clear. I managed to socialise a little, and returned to my academic role, which brought some welcome routine and focus. In addition, I received excellent support from the Practitioner Health Programme, for which I am very thankful. This is a confidential, free service for healthcare professionals—more information is available from practitionerhealth.nhs.uk.
However, a return to clinical work was still hanging over me. The thought of going back into the building and reliving that phone call filled me with dread. I had no idea how I would cope with my usual caseload without experiencing constant reminders of that day.
After weeks of rumination, I decided that resignation was the only option. I felt dreadful about the impact that my departure would have, and waves of guilt overwhelmed me for days until I finally plucked up the courage to do it. Submitting my letter of resignation was terrifying—I did not have another job lined up. My whole life had been spent working towards being a GP in a practice. What was I supposed to do now?
However, what followed was a sense of relief. At first, I wondered whether I needed a career change. Perhaps I could retrain as a pilot? Or in IT? Maybe even as a vet? But after a few weeks of research, I realised I needed familiarity, not a complete life change.
I applied for a couple of roles, and decided to take one with an organisation that provides various services to local CCGs, including out-of-hours, acute visiting, and accident and emergency GP roles. For the first few shifts, I felt extremely stressed. I had a longstanding worry that I was too slow to be a ‘good’ GP.
As I settled in, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the new role, particularly because the organisation I work for offers performance summaries and feedback on cases. I find the case reviews reassuring, and I have learnt a lot from the constructive feedback provided. I have also realised that I’m not actually that slow.
Working on a sessional basis means that I have more control over my week. If I need a day off to attend the inquest into my sister’s death, or a few days to recover, I just don’t book any shifts. There are many things I miss about my previous role as a salaried GP but, currently, the benefits of my new role outweigh the negatives. Although it may not be for everyone, it has allowed me to rediscover the joy of being a doctor.
These tragic events will never leave me, but they have at least prompted me to find a better work–life balance, with more time for friends and family.
Dr Sarah Merrifield
GP and Clinical Lecturer