It was 2005. I’d been working as a Consultant at Good Hope Hospital for a year or so, and in those days I worked Mondays on the Intensive Care Unit.
Good Hope felt like home, and in many ways it still does. I’d been a medical student there, had spent part of every stage of my training as a hospital specialist there, and it was (still is) the kind of District General Hospital where you can walk down the hospital corridor and find reason to stop and chat many times along the way. Because my colleagues at Good Hope have mentored me and seen me grow from a junior student, I feel they still see me that way now. I’ll always look up to the Consultants who helped make me the doctor I am today, I hope that keeps me a little grounded. I like that.
Jem was in bed 4. First on the left as you entered our old Intensive Care Unit. His wasn’t the face you’d want to be greeted with on a Monday morning. His face was swollen, his lips a purplish blue, the rest of his skin cold and mottled. He had come into hospital having been unwell for just a few days- his wife, Karen, had known something was seriously wrong and had called the GP, but Jem was left at home and told to rest. Almost the moment Jem arrived in the Emergency Department, he had suffered a cardiac arrest. Now, he was on maximum support (medicines to support his blood pressure, on a ventilator with high flow oxygen, and needing an artificial kidney machine) and, despite all that, was getting worse. It was clear Jem was dying.
The problem I had with this was that Jem was 37- only a couple of years older than me. Karen was at his bedside, and told me that they had two young children- Tom and Emily- who again were just a couple of years older than my own kids. I remember as though it were yesterday: following Karen to our relatives’ room, knowing that I was about to tell her that this man- her rock, the company director, the guy who filled his weekends with time with the children, motocross riding and waterskiing- was dying. Worse, that she was going to have to tell Tom and Emily that Daddy wasn’t coming home.
And all from a condition they’d never heard of….
I had been going through a difficult patch in my personal life at this time, and perhaps I wasn’t able to remain as emotionally detached as we healthcare professionals are told we should- but whatever the reasons, this one patient came to shape the direction of my future career.