I recently went to a ‘Women in Surgery’ event, where a lot of chat regarding ‘Role Models’ was flung about. A couple of people seemed to be fairly invested in the idea that they needed a fellow human surgeon to whom they could relate and aspire to be. Now, I’d already miss-behaved at the event by attempting to stuff an apple core down my friend’s top during the Role-Model-Discussion saga (what absolute banter I am), so I didn’t add my own inspiration story.
It was in fact a cricket that inspired me to want to become a surgeon.
Not a cricket bat, a genuine little insect that looks like a grass-hopper but is in fact a cricket. Actually, come to think of it, it might have been a locust (note to self: google locust/ grass-hopper/ cricket phylogeny and morphology).
During my biology degree, one of my praticals involved sellotaping down the wings of the (query) cricket, then jamming the poor thing at the end of a ruler and poking it and seeing how far it could jump. We then did some sort of maths and worked out that the back legs of the cricket were in fact a Big Deal. It didn’t occur to me then that the whole thing was a hilarious waste of time, it seemed obviously an important learning opportunity. I dunno, maybe it was useful in some way. Then as much as insect physiology is fascinating, it does amuse me that the Cambridge professors chose that particular practical, which involved a bunch of 18 year olds wildly chasing vast numbers of crickets around a lab whilst shrieking with delight.
Towards the end of a practical, I found myself sitting in a quiet corner gently removing the sellotape from the wings of my cricket. It required absolute concentration. I cannot even begin to describe my devastation had I accidentally torn the wing of the cricket and left her injured. Before I knew it, the rest of the class was queueing up to have their crickets de-sellotaped by me too.
It was then that I realised that I was alright at manipulating small things with my hands, zooming into something with my mind and absolutely concentrating as though my life depended on it. I could be a surgeon, I thought.
I wouldn’t revisit that thought for about 8 years, but the cricket planted the seed.
One of the things I struggled to understand was that not everyone loved the crickets quite as much as I did. As a vegan and animal-lover, I expected to find huge quantities of like-minded humans within the confines of my biology degree at Cambridge. I was confused and a bit dismayed to find myself the only vegetarian on the course. How could you be so passionate about understanding animals and still be naive enough to eat them?
There’s really no argument for it anymore, the animal-flesh and animal-secretions industry in the UK and beyond is absolutely rife with the suffering of animals. And people are blind to it. You, sitting there, reading this, are probably currently forming your own counter argument as to why you totally definitely should eat meat. You’re in denial. And now also probably annoyed at me for moaning, but hey ho I’ve got to try.
Coming into medicine I was even more surprised. When it comes to empathy, where should we draw the line? With humans? With humans who live near us? With humans who have the same values as us? It very quickly becomes a dark argument. I’m clear with myself that every patient I ever see I must absolutely feel empathy for and engage with, but sometimes I find it difficult given the choices they make. And this isn’t just the patients that decide to eat animals, smoke, drink, or shout incredibly loudly for no reason, it’s those with the terrifying moral compass that seems to have been skewed by a life of difficulty. To stare into the face of a patient who beats their partner, abuses their child and spouts racist or sexist language and still feel true empathy; that I find hard.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s better for me to think of humans like I think of other mammals – mammals that mean no harm, that are ultimately good, but through no fault of their own may have become a danger to others. Then I can feel empathy. But then, I also completely dehumanise humans with this approach. It removes respect for their autonomy to make an informed decision and give consent. I also find this approach, seeing patients as somehow ‘other’, deeply patronising on their behalf. But is it also a tool that allows one to be a better doctor? I’m not sure.
I’m currently at Bristol Parkway on my way home from giving a talk to 18 year olds about to start their degrees. I gave them a whistle-stop tour of antibiotic resistance, a problem which amongst many, many other problems in our society, stands silently on the shoulders of poor animal farming practices and slaughter. I hope they listened.