This time a year ago I was an NHS general practitioner in Banbury. In two weeks time I will probably be in eastern Congo. How did this happen? I’d been a partner at West Bar Surgery for over 25 years. My colleagues were highly motivated, mutually supportive, hard working and passionately devoted to providing outstanding clinical care. They were also the repository of the best jokes in town.
Why, then, would I choose to leave my safe, secure consulting room and take a huge step into something unknown, and possibly smelly?
Firstly, the timing was right. With the approach of my 60th birthday I could start to draw the NHS pension into which I’d been paying ever since I first qualified. Rationally, I'm aware that it's something I've paid into and to which I'm therefore entitled to draw from. Emotionally, however, it still feels very strange getting what feels like something for nothing.
Secondly, I reached the magic window stage with my four children; in their mid to late 20s they are all enthusiastically following their individual career trajectories, whilst not yet showing any inclination to provide me with any grandchildren.
Thirdly, I’m increasingly aware that although I’m currently healthy and still able to remember my children’s names, this is something that I can’t take for granted. As is only to be expected in my baby boomer generation, I am starting to hear of contemporaries who are developing illnesses and regretting missed opportunities.
My packing so far. I don't think I left anything out? Photo: Sarah Wookey / MSF
As I was starting to trawl through possible options for the next stage in my career, the Ebola crisis started to unfold in West Africa. What struck me was that whilst various national and international agencies deliberated over both the nature and extent of the outbreak, and the type and format of the most appropriate response, MSF seemed just to get on with it, deploying an effective Ebola treatment service in a remarkably short time.
Right, I thought, they're the ones for me. How, however, could I persuade MSF that this pre-owned but reasonably maintained GP from Middle England could somehow be of use to them?
Further research indicated that a diploma in tropical medicine wouldn't go amiss on my application form. I duly applied for the course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and, rather to my astonishment, was accepted.
I then embarked on what was one of the most intensive, fun and hilarious three months of my life at the School. Imagine 70 articulate, bright, witty adult students from all over the world, all intent on getting as much as possible both out of the course and out of London in three months.
MSF then interviewed me. When I told my daughter that my response to the question, “How do you deal with stress?” had been the entirely truthful answer, “I tend to make really bad taste jokes”, she told me I’d ruined my chances. Nevertheless they took a punt on me and accepted me onto their list of medics ready for deployment.
This didn't really sink in, and I carried on enjoying myself in London going to the theatre, visiting museums and basking in the admiration of my family for becoming an MSF doctor. This lasted until the HR team from London HQ decided that my French was just about good enough for me to go to the Congo.
I have now spent two weeks making lists: lists of lists and lists of lists of lists. I’m reading Conrad and Wrong and Dowden, and I have the same nagging worries at the back of my mind that I had when I first qualified in 1983: ‘You know nothing, you’ll be found out on on your first day, your ignorance will harm someone.'
Much more important, however, is the query raised by a colleague on hearing of my plans. Knowing me well he instantly googled “wine” and “Congo”. I’m hoping the answer he got was wrong…