If you have come to read this expecting to be regaled with dramatic tales of our adventures in foreign lands, I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed -please come back in 6 months. Surprisingly however, despite its location only several hundred miles above Bristol, our re-location north has felt like a very foreign experience. Please bear with me while I sound overly southern, but this is my first experience of living in a north of England city and we did step down very quickly from attic flat on the crescent in Clifton to urban Kensington. Liverpool seems to be a unexpected mix of beautiful tree lined parks, a plethora of cool coffee shops and bars, incredibly friendly and kind people and lots of boarded up houses. On our first walk on arrival we explored our immediate surroundings which consisted of a completely deserted but fully built and functioning, even down to the cycle tracks and and traffic lights, industrial park named “Innovation Boulevard”, a meat market, an ASDA with a distinct absence of fruit and vegetables and a row of completely boarded up houses, terraced red brick homes with all their doors and windows replaced with metal or wood waiting for some long lost “council regeneration scheme”.
We are living in a similar (but non boarded) terraced brick house with a pretty garden with a tree which miraculously grows both apples and pears. We are lodging with a kind and cheerful couple and eat dinners with them via a complicated blackboard system to signal who is going to be in or out. Our room has one arm chair in the corner which D and I argue about who is going to sit in. Initially after D and I seeing each other so irregularly at work in Bristol it is quite strange to be spending so much time together and at lectures we have overly elaborate discussions about whether we should sit together or separately.
D and I are studying for a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and both wore accidentally matching blue outfits as we walked in for our first day of school. We spend almost every day in a grand Victorian building in a new lecture theatre or in the lab. Our first day we all introduce ourselves to the rest of the class of 91 as our names are called off a register. These are called out in no discernible order and so I felt quite on edge trying to prepare my speech in front of everyone which I then promptly forgot when it was my turn. We discovered 4 other doctors all coming to work in the same hospital in Zambia as us in January and D attempted to make a joke about his role in the “Britain –Zambia take-over bid” which was met with nervous laughter from some who clearly felt it was too close to colonial past. We are surrounded by doctors at a huge range of various levels of training from immediately after F2, right up to a retired GP who announced “I’m liberated” during his introduction, a paediatric consultant who loves wild swimming and an army doctor who has spent the last few years in Borneo. There are several countries represented including Oman, Germany, Japan, Sudan and Afghanistan. The majority of people are taking several years out of training and it is a relief to be surrounded by those who view it almost an anomaly to take only 1 year out rather than expecting you to be racing up the ladder to consultancy.
Our working days consist of a combination of lab work and lectures. In the lab we are each given our own microscope with an allocated number and matching lab coat and numbered coat hook. I am especially happy about this primary school style numbered coat hook which I feel I missed out on in home school. Apparently we will spend over 60 hours at this bench over the next 3 months and M our dark haired lab teacher assures us that soon we will be rushing to our microscope at all hours of the day and night. I am sceptical but find I surprisingly enjoy searching through my eye piece and finding what I at first only see as stunning patterns and pictures all contained within a tiny spec of slide. Later in the week I gradually begin to pick out shapes which I can vaguely identify as parasites and protozoa- with a lot of help from lab staff and mutual reassurance that what we are seeing is not just a bit of plant from N my bench partner, a bright, chatty and very friendly anaesthetic/ITU trainee who has spent the last few years in Australia.
During lectures everyone gets out a sea of mac devices, initially D and I block the view of the powerpoint screen with our clumsy oversized old laptop screens until my sister L lends me her ipad so I can gleefully get out although it actually just ends up sitting beside me as I prefer to write paper notes anyway. One of our favourite lectures so far was given on a Friday afternoon by an inspirational GP who had move to an incredibly remote corner of Afghanistan with his wife and 4 blonde haired children primary school aged children to set up a health care system in mountainous villages with absolutely no health care provision. The talk was 3 hours long but we all were mesmerised, hanging on to his every word. He mostly taught us through stories and pictures and I especially liked hearing about his ingenious use of his medical knowledge and the resources around him to find solutions to problems. For example using different coloured bags of sand to construct a growth chart for illiterate health care workers and using a pendulum to monitor respiratory rate. He also spoke beautifully about how easy it is to view people in another country or our own patients as separate and different from us rather than as people who share the same hopes, who laugh at jokes and who worry about their children. In medicine I think we often do this as away of protecting ourselves but he argued it was essential to identify with people to really be in a position to offer support and kindness to them and to try to give what is actually needed rather than what our perception of their need is. I also enjoyed his slightly dark sense of humour which peppered most of his stories, when asked about concerns regarding safety in the region he told us a story about how he had been instructed by the NGO he worked for to write down his emergency escape plan which he diligently recorded as “I will drive my truck to the end of the road and then climb over the mountains with my wife and children singing ‘The sound of music’”.
D’s and my other favourite lecturer is an American suave man who is a professor in public health. He initially lulled us into a false sense of security in his first introductory lecture in which he canvassed the room to see who had worked where – responding to everyone by nodding intently and making remarks such as “Oh Kenya—I love every bit of that country” and “Oh yes South Sudan, I set up their health care system” but now spends hours rattling through complex equations and statistical methods for gathering accurate data about whether a project is working or not at a speed which makes me feel that I have to sit upright on the edge of my seat incase I miss a word and then am lost for the next few hours.
Everyone on the course is extremely sociable and there is always a flurry of whatsapp messages daily about various activities, events and in-jokes. We have been to a yoga class with an 85 year old wizened old woman who looked like a Disney character, went to what was a combination of a night out and food festival in a warehouse, walked in the peak district and are currently upcycling a table. It has also been a lovely treat to spend time with some of our long lost favourite friends from Edinburgh H, A, I and R who are all doing the course with us and of course K who is living in her urban Manchester 15th floor jungle, decorated in the very modern colours of yellow and grey. I am loving having time to think properly about things like how much water you need per day per person for a refugee camp, how to co-ordinate aid agencies arriving at an airport in a disaster, how to identify different types of flies, what white blood cells look like down a microscope and what the budget of UNICEF is.
Will share more of these thoughts next post, thank you for making it this far and for taking the time to read.