Working from the heart.

I had taken the day off work. The nurturing, peaceful, green lap of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at Hemel Hampsted was where I wanted to be. It was a day of rest, solitude, silent contemplation and meditation. Autumn was at its prettiest best and despite everything, it was time to receive beauty. Receive time.

It was the fourth anniversary of Saagar’s passing. The most difficult day of the year, despite my belief that time means absolutely nothing. But this day always stares at me like the enemy. A wretched, horrid, cruel, ugly thing. A brown sludge that I have no choice but to drag myself through.

Slowly, slowly … most of the day drew itself behind me. I returned home, gazing at the sky from the train window, still looking for answers. Still nothing. Just the unbearable pain of longing.

Switched myself back into practical mode, as the next day I was meant to be working. Opened my inbox and found an e-mail from someone called Dan.

“I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue like this, my name is Dan, I’m a third year medic at Aberdeen University and also the Vice President of the Anaesthetics Society. 

I actually attended your talk at the AAGBI conference this summer. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I found it incredibly moving. The very day before I attended I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and was worried about how this would indeed impact on my studies and working career as a Doctor. 

After your talk, I met with one of the Consultants who was offering a ‘mentoring’ session where I discussed the recent diagnosis. She spoke to me about what I need to do to stay well, one of the things was accepting treatment, which initially I admit I was not that open to doing. 

Anyways, I find myself rambling on, I suppose I just wanted to email and introduce myself. If you have any advice for someone with Bipolar who is wishing to pursue a career in Anaesthesia then I would love to hear it!

I just saw an email which was saying that you are giving a talk in Aberdeen next week about this particular topic, which I certainly hope to attend! If you would be about afterwards and free for a coffee I would certainly love to meet you!

Best Wishes and sorry again for emailing like this out the blue!

Kind regards,

Dan.“

Another green moment – tears mixed with joyful smiles. What a way to end the day. What perfect timing.

We met in Aberdeen a few days later. He was all smiles. Friendly, generous and sensitive. We got on instantly. Had a nice long chat. He dropped me in his little red car to the airport. I told him I was hoping to write a book at some stage. He offered to help me with the research that might be needed.

Last week, I was back there in Aberdeen at Dan’s request, to run a 2 hour-long Mental Health Workshop for a bunch of medical students, junior doctors and researchers. It was a good day. I had to smile when Dan talked about Saagar as if he was an old friend.

1+50+176+?

Merchandise at the Manchester Firing Line. Manchester New Hampshire. USA.

On a board of chess, both sides stand face to face

Using wise moves, strategies and tacts.

No drones, no justified assassinations   

No sneaky cyber-attacks.

Two rooks, bishops and knights, both sides have by rights.

Those are the rules of the game. For both sides, the same.

Some things are clearly wrong and others that are right.

Whether your pieces are black, or brown or white.

The way the moves are made,

the way the game is played,

a knight is often not the first to be slayed.

A murder in plain sight

Yet, everyone kept quiet.

No criticism. No outcry?

The killers had good reason. That is why.

They always do.

But do they speak the truth?

Who knows? Do you?

Vietnam, Iraq and now this.

For what? For who?

He was someone’s dad, someone’s son,

A military leader, not holding a gun.

This was an act of cowardice, just for fun.

Guns are a sport in the land

from where the assassin came.

The killers proudly laid claim

To this, their ‘good deed’.

Knowing full well that yet again,

they are sowing a seed.

A seed of death and conflict.

Within a week, a stampede.

Multiple counter-strikes

Hitting innocent planes and passers-by.

Who are the ones that die?

People like you and I.

While the international bully

Keeps on keeping on fighting

In the name of self-defence,

‘Freedom and Liberty’?

When a gun is fired, two people die.

The one hit by the bullet

and the one who let it fly.

War is not the answer. Please.

How can we tolerate this?

Instead of wrapping the world in daisy-chains,

We are covering it in wreaths.

(Footnote: Sixty thousand war veterans, many of them young men, have died by suicide in the USA in 2008-2017. On an average 17 to 20 suicides per day and the rates are not falling despite massive efforts.

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/09/23/alarming-va-report-totals-decade-veteran-suicides.html)

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.

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…”

One whole month

It wasn’t just a physical transportation but also an emotional one. For four weeks I was not an anaesthetist or a wife. I was just a traveling (Churchill) Fellow, curious to learn everything about ways of supporting vulnerable people through crises, advocacy for struggling families and attempt survivors, intentional and effective peer support, safe care-transitions and timely compassionate support for families, friends and communities affected by suicide.

Two contrasting towns with distinct landscapes. Concord in New Hampshire was a small, friendly town resplendent with autumnal beauty, a quiet serenity and a lot of ‘heart’. New York, a big blustering metropolis with clanking trains, crazy-ass driving (yes, worse than London), much honking and many high-level policy-makers. Hence, more like the ‘head’ of the suicide prevention community.

Rail-trail from Concord to Franklin

Since Saagar’s passing, I have not been on my own for that length of time. Especially as his 5th anniversary fell right in the middle of it. It was not easy living fully immersed in the world of Suicide prevention (SP) almost every day for a month. Sometimes it was overwhelming and ‘too much’. It turned out that I was not alone. I was met with much warmth, kindness and understanding. Some old friends made time to catch up with me and some new friends emerged.

One sunny autumn day I had the pleasure of riding a 3-person- tandem bike with an amazing couple who have cycled thousands of miles in tandem all over the world for the past 27 years. On the 16th Ann (an excellent SP trainer) and I went for a nice long walk in the woods in Derry with Dr Indiana Jones, her Border Collie. This was followed by a much needed brunch at a classic American ‘Red Arrow’ Diner where I had the best ever Tuna melt sandwich.

Polly’s pan-cakes was our destination one afternoon as we set off towards the north – Elaine, Pauline and I. We spoilt ourselves with a rich variety of pancakes before taking a walk along the river and visiting ‘The Basin’.

On my return to the UK, I joined the 50th anniversary celebrations weekend retreat of an amazing charity that supports bereaved parents and their families. It’s called ‘The Compassionate Friends’. The film below captures many aspects of the experiences as bereaved parents/siblings. Changed forever.

“Say their name”

I am happy to be back home and back at work. My life greatly enriched, I hope to share the learning and bring about changes for the better, working with various charities, the NHS and the Mayor’s office as effectively as I can. Right now I am assimilating it all, bit by bit by bit.