This one time, at badEMfest18…

Remember that time I went to a little town (village??) called Greyton, with some friends, and had a blast?

It happened again.

This time, not as a student, but as a doctor. Then, Greyton enriched me. This time, it may well have changed my life. Or at least, my career. (Are they really two different things?)

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I went to a conference called BAD EM Fest – Brave African Discussions in Emergency Medicine. “But you don’t even like Emergency Medicine,” my best friend said. Lies, damned lies! I don’t NOT like EM. I just find it terrifying. (For the record, there were HCPs from various specialties, not limited to EM.)

And I would have left it there, except that one of the organisers kept encouraging me to sign up (thanks, Kat), and it looked so fun. Where have you ever heard of a medical conference where attendees glamp (Google it), walk around barefoot, and go for twice-daily hikes in the mountains? Oh, and have live music shows in the evenings at dinner.

So with a little bit of encouragement from my friends, I shut my eyes tightly, told the little voice in my head that said, “BUT YOU HATE CROWDS” to shut up, and clicked “pay”.

I could tell you a lot of important stuff about the conference, but most of it has been said quite eloquently, by Penny Wilson, Andrew Tagg, Dan Roberts, Kaleb Lachenicht, and Simon Carley.

While I learned a whole lot, the reason badEMfest felt almost like a religious experience (minus the mandatory guilt and hell-fire), was a lot more personal.

After the first session, which included talks ranging from diversity to advocacy, I turned to my friend, May, and whispered, “No matter what happens now, this is already worth it.”

Here’s the thing about May, though: we have been friends on Twitter for years, but we only met in person that day. You wouldn’t have guessed it (and many people were surprised) because we knew each other’s lives so well. Gone are the days where “internet friends are not real friends”.

May is not the first Twitter-friend I have met in person, and she certainly was not the last: in those four days I met local and international healthcare professionals that I have followed (and admired) for years. It was not uncommon to ask a new face, “Who are you on Twitter?”

So it was at the end of the first day that I had a moment of clarity: These are my people.

And you will know how huge that is, if you’ve ever felt alone in medicine. If you’ve ever thought that you were alone in being affected by the non-clinical aspects of your patients’ lives. If you have ever felt impotent to effect real change. If you have ever felt victimised. If you have ever shouted unto the void, and received only an echo in exchange.

My depression means I often feel isolated – even when that is not the case. Because I have been afraid, and because depression told me that I was not worthy, I have not reached out to role models; I have not asked for advice when I could (should) have; I have often re-invented the wheel, and done so poorly.

To be fair, I did have a few nasty supervisors in my training. But at badEMfest, I saw how kindness permeates medicine. I met super-bosses. I met absolutely innovative people. I met some of the kindest, most compassionate clinicians.

Part of me was bitter – how had I been allowed to go so long without knowing that I was not alone? But in the face of overwhelming support, bitterness is so hard to hold on to. Instead, I’ve got an overwhelming urge to make sure that junior doctors and medical students get to know that they are not alone. To make sure that kindness outnumbers the nasties. Because it is easy to think that the slave-driving registrar is representative of the rest of medicine. But maybe they’re having a horrible time too. Everybody needs some kindness.

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And I’ve got this bubble of excitement as I consider my next steps… because suddenly, anything is possible.

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Ever since I wrote about how going for therapy was my biggest gift to myself*, I’ve met with a few medical students to talk about the topic of mental health. Many of them were worried about their ability to make it through med school with their illness. Many were worried about the viability of a career in medicine with depression.

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