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Balancing Life as an NHS Doctor with Research: A personal reflection

My name is Laura, I have never written a blog post in my life and if I had to define myself with a simple description, I would say that I am a hopeless dreamer.

I am also, among other things, an Italy-trained consultant psychiatrist, a speciality doctor working on a female inpatient ward within the NHS and, perhaps one day more than today, a researcher.

Image source: Author's own

I landed in the UK out of luck in November 2021, answering an invitation to partake in research for a nine-month placement during my final year of Psychiatry training. I left Italy full of doubts but with a tiny bit of excitement, as I was about to start my journey on the biggest of adventures.

And it indeed was. For those nine months working non-clinically, life stopped for a little bit, and I finally had the chance to reflect on my personal journey, and, most importantly, to creatively think about psychiatry — what we are doing and where we may be heading.

I have suffered with anxiety my whole life, having dealt with, like most people, my fair share of emotional trauma when I was growing up. Anxiety was one way of coping with a freezing fear of being judged. Controlling every aspect of my life was the other.

Whilst in the UK, away from home, work, and all my important relationships, finally alone with myself, I underwent a period of incredible transformation, fueled by three things that I believed saved my life: psychotherapy, mindfulness, and nature.

After a few years of personal psychotherapy, which helped me understand myself and, in many ways, meet myself for the first time, I started practising yoga and meditating every day. Mindfulness practices made me feel connected to my own body and to its needs. In the UK, I had the privilege of living with a wonderful young couple and their kids, to whom I will be forever grateful, in a small town on the edge of New Forest. Walking those lands, I felt that I was not only connecting with myself, but with the world around me. And so, I healed myself.

Image source: Author's own

I had a lot of time to read, think, and reflect. And with that, I felt that I didn't want to just be a clinician. Perhaps, along the way, I had collected some experiences that I wanted to share. Perhaps, in a world that seems like it's changing incredibly fast, I started dreaming about being part of that change.

Soon, I had to leave again and finish my training in Italy. But I had made my decision: I wanted to come back to the UK. And so, I did. Since mid-January, I have been working in the NHS, having secured a job with the patients I love the most — women, most of them affected by personality disorders and who frequently experience emotional dysregulation due to past traumas. I mostly work clinically, but I have one day a week of protected time dedicated to my research interests.

I am passionate about the impact of emotional and physical traumas on our bodies and therefore on our lifestyle choices, in practices like meditation and yoga (we can call them Mindfulness-Based Interventions), which I believe could be helpful tools to heal from those traumas.

This may sound like the perfect combination, a dream come true perhaps. Yet, I struggle.

On a practical side, the only days I have been able to focus on research have been the ones when I cannot possibly access my emails. If not, I find myself wondering about patients, or about little jobs that have not been completed yet. Other times I get called by trainees asking for advice. In general, I suppose deep down I believe that, as much as research is valuable and necessary, the everyday, concrete problems that patients deal with are more urgent and require greater priority.

On another level, I struggle with having just one day a week to focus on thinking, writing, and creatively addressing clinical problems. I find myself in need of a lot of time and some days, by the time I get to the end of my work week, I am just exhausted. I switch on my computer, and it takes me so long to understand what I need to do — or what I would like to do.

Yet, I feel that there is still so much to find out about trauma and personality disorders, and I see that the not-enough evidence of research on these patients has led to difficult clinical situations that make everyone feels frustrated, both patients and healthcare services. I believe it is important to address these issues and to delve deeper into the potential impact of research on improving these specific patients' care. I truly believe that my research interests align with these goals and may bring benefit to a field where at times it feels simply impossible to even survive, not to say thrive.

I suppose by being interested in alternative approaches, perhaps having more progressive and innovative ideas, on the one side I feel stuck, on the other side I lack the courage that perhaps it is required to actually bring some change, especially when one is called to still achieve the same level of productivity in a system that asks us to do things fast and by the books.

However, it should not be so difficult to be both a doctor and a researcher.

There's so much potential in every collaboration between clinical work and research, so many benefits that one area can bring to the other. There's not a single day at work that I don't find myself reflecting upon what could be done differently, and having the privilege of knowing my patients so well helps me focus on which ways may be more helpful for them. Finally, having dealt with similar emotional issues just gives me more strength.

As I said, I am a hopeless dreamer. I see the struggles, yet I know by experience that struggling is the only way to find creative solutions and change what we think cannot be changed. Struggling has given me the little courage to speak my own truth and to believe in a different future. So, I welcome the struggles, and I gracefully keep fighting.

Image source: Author's own


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