To you, with love. xxx

Sixth Christmas with your empty chair

Now more salt, less pepper in my hair.

That I’ve been breathing all this time

Still makes no sense, no reason, no rhyme.

Your cat makes all the other felines quake

His sweet name, given by you, is still Milkshake.

The Christmas markets we visited at the Southbank

The doughy sweets we gorged and the German beer we drank.

Those candle stalls and hand-knit shops, I believe are still there

But a visit, I cannot bear.

Ice skating at Somerset house with friends

Merry shopping here and there, for odds and ends.

Cocktails at ‘All bar One’ after work at Waterloo

What I would give to have another one, with you.

Beating the hell out of every one at Ping-pong.

Not many of your moves, slow or wrong.

The years trundle in and roll out like a stream,

I watch and wonder how they could be both,

A nightmare and a dream.  

Standing back, I watch and see.

Trying not to judge. Just be.

There are but three things to know,

To love, to learn and to let go.

To love, to learn and to let go.

Patients first.

Credit: Mario Sanchez Nevado (www.aegis-strife.net)

When I speak with gatherings of doctors, I often start with asking them to shout out whether they think the statements below are True or False. What do you think?

  • Sick doctors know when they are sick.
  • Doctors are good at asking for help and following advice.
  • Doctors take good care of themselves.
  • Doctors have strong support networks.
  • Doctors are kind to each other.   

Irrespective of which country I am in, without fail the auditoria flood up with a big resounding ‘FALSE’ for each of the above, accompanied with some sniggering. Isn’t it shocking? One would expect that people who work in ‘healthcare’ would know a thing or two about their own health as individuals and as a community.

These are the highlights of a survey conducted by the Royal College of Anaesthetists in 2016-17:

The NHS Sickness statistics consistently show that NHS hospital doctors have the lowest rate of sick leave as compared to any other staff group.  Here is a list of personality traits of doctors (a broad generalization, of course) that might explain this:

  • Perfectionism (I must do this right!)
  • Narcissism (I am good at what I do.)
  • Compulsiveness (I can’t give up till I finish.)
  • Denigration of vulnerabilities (If I need help, I am weak.)
  • Martyrdom (I care for my patients more than myself. Their needs come before mine.)

The very traits that make us good doctors are the ones that may not be very good for us. But our seniors have not been aware of this and hence they have not been able to help us understand ourselves. This tradition has been going on for generations of doctors. There is a nobility associated with such self-sacrifice, which we all have bought into. The fact is that if your own cup is empty, you cannot serve others well.

Things add up – a dysfunctional department, work pressures, lack of support outside work, ill-health, emotional burden of the job, a traumatic adverse incident, lack of sleep, fatigue, a complaint made against you, poor diet and no time to exercise or pursue hobbies, impaired judgement of one’s own symptoms, fear of letting others down, difficulty in admitting that they have a problem.

Burnout among medics is not unusual. It looks much like depression and sometimes ends in devastating tragedies. But help is available. Sadly, unlike other illnesses, for mental health issues, the onus of getting help lies with the sufferer. It takes courage to acknowledge one needs help and seek it out in good time. It might be the best thing a doctor can do for themselves and their patients.

Sources of support:

  1. https://www.bma.org.uk/advice/work-life-support/your-wellbeing/sources-of-support
  2. Doctors in Distress, a charity set up by Amandip Sidhu in memory of his brother Dr Jagdip Sidhu who was an eminent cardiologist and tragically died by suicide on 27th November 2018.

Soloman’s wisdom.

A parabel.

Soloman prayed to God “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad.” And his wish was granted.

And Solomon awoke; and, behold, it was a dream. And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt offerings, and offered peace offerings, and made a feast to all his servants.

Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him. And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house.

And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house. And this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it.

And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear.

And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.

Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living.

And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.

Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

Footnote: Indifference kills. Love and wisdom preserve.

Could I?

She ran around chasing her multiple ‘to-do’ lists the whole time. She managed to tick things off it with fare speed. Yet her chores never ended. She didn’t allow herself the slightest slip-up. She slowed down for nothing or no one. Despite running herself down she kept carrying on. Yet she thought she wasn’t quite hitting the mark. There was so much more to do. She lived so much in the future that she could never see the landscape of her own heart or anyone else’s. She didn’t know that if your own cup is empty, you can’t fill someone else’s.

She thought she had everything under control. She didn’t ask anyone for help or advice. Even if they offered it, she seldom took it. She did her own thing. Deep down she knew that she didn’t know best but had no idea how to admit it. She took herself way too seriously. She bull-dozed her way around the marshland of her life and crushed a poor little soul every now and then. She didn’t know how to apologise even when she was truly sorry.

She took herself off to far-away places as and when she fancied, oblivious of the impact it would have on those left behind. She just wanted to fly high, be happy, be free. She made it look like she had it all figured out when in fact, she was lost. She had no names for her feelings. Somewhere along the way she had learnt that it was ok to be a martyr and a bully and she managed to play both those roles to perfection. She didn’t know that it wasn’t ‘hard work’ but kindness that made a life good.

She had been unfulfilled and ignorant in so many ways for so many years but she had no clue. She was under the impression that she was successful. There was so much that she did not know. But none of it was her fault.

Could I forgive her?

She was the mother of my son before Day 0.

Could I accept her? Even love her? Embrace her? Could I?

Our own voices

Paramedics and trainee paramedics rotate through our Department of Anaesthesia to learn to manage airways safely. A few weeks ago, I had a young man in his mid-thirties, a trainee paramedic with me, learning about airway management. Out of curiosity I asked him, “What is the most annoying part of your job?” He was straight-up, “When people inflict injuries on themselves, I think it’s such a waste of time. It takes away from others with real problems, who really need our attention.” I just smiled. I wasn’t surprised. I know full well that paramedics do a great job of looking after all kinds of people in all kinds of trouble. But attitudes can only be changed through education.

A professor of Psychiatry tweeted today “Twice in the last week I’ve been told of cruel comments by health staff to people who had self-harmed. I really believe this is unusual now but it shows there is something deep-rooted that we have to eradicate.” A classic example of ignorance within medicine of attitudes within medicine.

No training of first responders is complete till someone with lived experience of a mental illness has spoken with them, be it a police academy, social workers, fire fighters, nursing or medical students or ambulance crew. Lived experience includes suicide attempt survivors, others who have experienced a suicidal crisis and those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Sharing by these individuals can be a powerful agent for challenging prejudice and generating hope for people at risk. It enriches the participant’s understanding of how people with these serious disorders cope with their symptoms, recover and lead productive lives with hope, meaning and dignity. The program also empowers those who are faced with mental illness and provides living proof that recovery is an ongoing reality. Presenters gain confidence and self-esteem while serving as role models for the community.

Disproportionate focus on research and clinical expertise too frequently fails to see the person at the centre of a crisis as well as their loved ones who ride the wave of terror of suicidal behaviour. This needs to change and with urgency.

Lived Experience is an underutilised and underappreciated resource in the UK.

Roses in the ocean, a charity in Australia is an excellent example of harnessing this invaluable resource and making a huge difference.

Men and boys

International Men’s Day is designed to help more people consider what action we can all take to “Make A Difference” and “give men and boys better life chances” by addressing issues such as high suicide rates, sexual abuse and health.

I had no idea when this day was until yesterday morning, when I received 4 photographs from Aidan who lives in Malasia. He is one of Saagar’s close friends and he shared a house with him at Durham. His comment read “Delivering a Mental Health talk to Schlumberger in conjunction with International Men’s day.’

Invaluable, undying friendships.

Here’s another set of friends. Rene’s friends, who are racing across the Atlantic later this month in his memory – Race for Rene. They are raising a huge amount of awareness and funds for 2 charities: PAPYRUS and Child Bereavement UK. They say, “We lost Rene to mental health in 2017. We don’t want anyone else to have to feel what that’s like.” That is a vision worth having.

Here’s a conversation with James, one of Rene’s friends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=Aerqfealiwk&feature=emb_title

Good luck to the crew. Here’s to all the men and boys we love:

Thanks for this Mary.

Three friends

This is an approximate transcript of a presentation I made at a TCF (The Compassionate Friends) gathering of bereaved parents earlier this month. The topic was “Finding Hope after Catastrophe”. I hope you find it useful in some way.

“Hello. My name is Sangeeta. I am an Anaesthetist by profession and it’s my job to put people to sleep. Thank you TCF, for having me here this evening.

My son is called Saagar Naresh. I could often hear his cackles emanating from his room. I am pretty sure he’s watching cat videos again. He loves to laugh and make other people laugh. He’s as bright as they come, astutely picking up languages, accents and mannerisms of people around him. He would go shopping with his best friend Hugo to Oxford street and they would pretend to be South African tourists all day.

We loved cooking together. It involved chopping of onions. He got tired of his eyes stinging and watering and found a way out – he would wear his swimming goggles whilst chopping onions. It worked brilliantly!

He was an excellent cricketer. A fast bowler to be precise. He also played the drums in a band. He loved to go to the gym. Most of all, he had a heart of gold and even when he was a teenager, he loved cuddles. He spoke French and German fluently and chose to study Arabic from scratch at University as he wanted to challenge himself.

After his second year at Durham University, he came home for the summer holiday and was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. He was unable to go back to pursue his studies as his depression started to deepen. We saw a doctor on the 14th of October 2014. He told us that Saagar would have to wait till his medications kicked in, that he was on the right medicines but they would take time to work. On the 16th of October, Saagar ended his own life.

That was like a bomb going off in our lives. Losing him suddenly, out of the blue was our catastrophe.

Finding hope …

The Oxford dictionary defines Hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”.

For me, Hope is the belief that it is possible that some of the best days in my life are yet to come.

Soon after Saagar passed away, just getting through the day was an achievement. The time ‘yet to come’ was a huge burden. I had nothing left to offer to the world and the one thing I wanted, the world could not offer me. My own mortality stared me squarely in my face and it was strangely seductive.

What was I left with? My logical mind had been turned into an emotional pulp as there was no logic to this. The more I tried to make sense of it, the more I suffered. It was like banging my head against a brick wall. It did not make any sense. Period. Deal with it.

What was I left with?

  1. This moment, right NOW
  2. Me, mySELF.
  3. Nature.

NOW

How deep rooted was my belief that Saagar would always be around? How much did I take that for granted?

What am I taking for granted right now?

My breath.

My parents.

My partner.

My job.

My health.

Let death be your teacher. ‘Right now’ is all I have left. Like a bird trapped in a cage. The door is open but the bird is unable to fly away. The cage is where he/she belongs. In the ‘now’, I could only sit and watch the door, knowing that it was open. I could breathe in, take a pause, breathe out, pause, breathe in and repeat… I could fully acknowledge and feel the dark hollow that was my chest and hear the echoes of my sobs returning from the black hole within. Connecting fully with the present moment was the only way past it. There was no short-cut. No secret escape route. One moment at a time. Now, I am walking upstairs. Now, I am halving cherry tomatoes. Now, I am watching the steam rise from my cup of tea and so on… My refuge lay in this moment, right here. Right now. The future is a story. The past exists in our thoughts. Yet, our mind is in one or the other. What is real is this moment.

I had a patient once who had a black ‘Gratitude’ tattoo on her left forearm in a big bold decorative font. I asked her the story behind it. She said, ”I work with kids with learning disabilities. By the time I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning, I’ve achieved more than they can. So, I am grateful every moment.”

SELF

I was lucky to have so much support at that impossible time. My mum and brother came over from India to be with me. My friends, Saagar’s friends, their parents, my work colleagues. Everyone stood by me with love and compassion but ultimately it was up to me to live with this utter devastation. I was filled with so many questions, so much guilt and grief that I felt like I was drowning. 

It took 2-3 years but slowly I taught myself to be kind to myself. I am still teaching and reminding myself that our everyday reality is made up of stuff that is unthinkable for most people. We live the life that is other’s worst nightmare. Many can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in our shoes. 

So, we need to honour ourselves for carrying on living with as much grace and dignity as possible after having absorbed the impact of such a huge catastrophe. To know that the harsh inner critic will continue to chatter but we need to witness its mumbling, recognise the pointlessness of it and let it go.

We need to have compassion for ourselves. Compassion being not just a gentle kind feeling but small acts of courage. For instance, I used to love dangly ear-rings ‘before’. I would change them every day, to match my clothes. But for 3 years ‘after’ I didn’t change out of the boring old gold studs. One day I decided to change into one of my favourite pair of ear-rings for no particular reason. It was a small shift. It took courage. I cried. But it was an act of kindness towards myself. I needed my own friendship, my own affection. I needed to once again find ways of being at ease with myself. Lord Buddha has said “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

I am learning that I need to be a ‘compassionate friend’ to myself.

NATURE

That wretched day in the middle of October was cursed but also resplendent with autumn colours. It was a festival of orange, ochre, red, green, yellow and terracotta. These decorative leaves carpeted our street. I stared out of the window watching these leaves gracefully dance their way to the ground. The trees went from being semi-nude to naked. This was the cycle of life. Nature was reminding me and showing me the devastating beauty of life. Cycles upon cycles of change, millions of times over. The impermanence of everything.

Over the next few months, I sat gazing at the Himalayan mountain range, marvelling at its history and all the changes it has undergone. I sat on a beach in Goa, watching the ocean waves change every second. Over time, I started to allow Nature to teach me what I needed to learn and soothe me when I needed to be soothed. I learnt that we humans can carry the utter tyranny of life in one hand while simultaneously carrying the spectacular beauty of it in the other.

I requested everyone to join me in singing this song by ABBA and was delighted by the upward shift of healing energy in the room as everyone sang together. It was a powerfully uplifting evening.

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help…”