Happy New Year 2018 from a NHS Survivor!

Happy New Year 2018 from a NHS Survivor!

Happy New Year!

It is amazing how time passes faster the older you get. It seems like yesterday that we were celebrating New Year’s Eve 2016. It was a quiet one as we were not sure what the following year would bring in terms of my personal health and whether I would be able to return to the job I love, working as a Surgeon in the NHS. We had just told the children of my diagnosis, fearful of their reaction and with the optimism of youth, they were not worried at all!

The appreciation for life also becomes more profound. Family and friends have passed last year and many new ones were born. The grief is intense on losing those who are close, and although people always tell you that time will heal, this is not understandable until you go through it yourself. The grief fades into the background but the memories become more striking with time. They become triggered by the most odd things: scents, foods, colours, words amongst so many things and the menories make you laugh or cry at the most insane moments.

And there are so many memories. I remember celebrating New Year’s Eve with my parents, brother and sister. We would all stay up until Big Ben chimed and then my parents would send us all to bed. As the years passed, we would have to try to keep our parents up until midnight with increasing difficulty.  We have done the same with our children. Watching the London fireworks has become a tradition as has phoning our nearest and dearest. Communication has enabled connections across the world in seconds compared to the old airmails that Mummy would send to India that would take several weeks. These are the times when I really miss Mummy and Daddy. They both continue to give me a drive for life and enable the success and health of others.

I cannot thank the NHS enough for my care last year. I would not be here, back to working, without the excellence of the team at Croydon University Hospital who diagnosed my acoustic neuroma or the skill of my neurosurgeon at the John Radcliffe in Oxford. The care I received was without reference to my background, wealth or culture. How many countries can boast such an altruistic system. It never crossed my mind to seek private healthcare as I knew I would get the best within the NHS.

I am proud to be working in the NHS. I see my colleagues, in all aspects of healthcare, working so hard with the scant resource, trying to ensure that patient care is delivered to the highest standard possible. Time is precious and there is no doubt that there is waste and inefficiency in the system but most of us spend our time firefighting, trying to manage the crisis caused by targets which do not allow longer term planning. Change is being forced centrally at pace and there is no time to evaluate whether this really will be to the benefit of the NHS and the patients it cares for.

The junior doctor dispute was bitter as was the decision to withdraw bursaries for those who wish to pursue roles within the NHS, often as a second career. It sent a clear message to the workers: those who manage the NHS do not value their staff, they are not thought to be integral to the NHS, as people who invest their careers in one company for a lifetime but rather as expendable workers. No wonder so many have left the NHS or changed their allegiance to a different country or even to Scotland or Wales. Brexit has added to these pressures as we have already sent out the message that we do not value our EU colleagues although they are the backbone of our NHS.

NHS-area-of-work.jpgThese decisions have culminated in a system where there are gaps at so many levels within the NHS. In an effort to make the money go further, there is a cap on locum and bank pay and spend for medical and administrative staff. The NHS needs to cap the salaries of non medical NHS staff in the same way to ensure parity. Those who are still working in the NHS are covering these gaps by working innovatively to ensure patient safety but this cover has now become a struggle.

Consultants are being asked to cover registrar shifts, trainees are missing training opportunities and the NHS has lost the ‘firm’ structure that ensured that we all worked in teams, allowing emotional support, debriefing and rapid feedback. Nurses are staying beyond their shift times to help support colleagues with sick patients and all staff within the NHS are contributing free hours as many of us are altruists and cannot see patient care being compromised.

There are limits to what can be achieved within the cash envelope which is NHS funding. The winter crisis of 2017/8 has been and continues to be difficult to cope with. The NHS does not do Christmas or New Year holidays, everyone keeps the ship running, with relentless targets for cancer and elective care needing to be met. There have been surges of emergencies for many Trusts, due to increasingly sick and frail people as well as those who have self-inflicted the need for NHS care. Mental Health provision is extremely challenged and ambulance services ensure these people find a safe provision of care which is often the acute sector, often at a time of crisis rather than semi elective care. GPs are on their knees and there are reasons that trainees are not choosing to follow this profession and decide on portfolio careers to allow a pressure valve when the NHS becomes too hard. The extra winter funding is a start but without funding for community care, this does not improve the flow through the acute sector. Most Trusts are in deficit and will not achieve the impossible financial control targets and even the John Radcliffe Hospital, a world-renowned centre of clinical excellence, is struggling financially. The NHS is spending millions on turnaround teams and consultancy firms, perhaps we should pay the internal staff better and allow them to get on with running the NHS well.

I am proud to be back in my job, working as a clinician and a manager. I see the skill of colleagues in clinical and managerial practice, trying to balance excellence with finance. We need to make a decision soon as to what we want. The NHS achievements over the last 70 years have been astounding but are costing more and we are all living longer and expecting more.


From an aspiration of care delivered without cost at the patient face in 1948, the only cost implemented is that of prescription charges but even this has exceptions for those in need factored in. Do we now need to think about charging? Or just changing the way we respect the care that the NHS gives? The NHS gives freely, Grenfell, the Bridge attacks, Manchester. Each time the NHS has to deliver excellence, it does. Perhaps the public need to give excellence too.

Why do people fail to attend hospital appointments, even dates for surgery. Each of these episodes costs all of us already but we just don’t see it. Recently, I have witnessed bookers trying to persuade patients to take dates offered for surgery, to be told that these are not convenient as they have social plans. Really?

Each NHS user should be asking how they can do their bit to use the NHS resource as well as they can. Trainees sent out to accompany ambulance crews were shocked at the number of calls for inappropriate reasons but also as to the number of frail, elderly people or those with mental health problems, just about coping at home until that final straw breaks the unstable status quo. Have we stopped being a compassionate society where we looked in and knew the neighbour next door?

I am looking forward to working in an NHS to the end of my career and will continue to invest in it as it has in me. I have loyalty to the NHS as in the past it had loyalty to me. Our younger trainees and staff need to feel valued now as do the Senior Staff who are the memory and innovators of the NHS.

To allow it to succeed, the NHS needs to be unshackled from many of its targets that have become beasts that need to be fed. The fines that are applied for missing targets need to be reviewed: we should be learning not being penalised for processes that need improvement. The question of finance must be addressed this year and a cross party working group may enable how we can continue to deliver a NHS that we are all proud of.

I am looking forward to this year, looking forward to getting my strength and health back to normal. Learning to cope with my hearing loss and ensuring that I develop a new work life balance. I am looking forward to my 50 (again) birthday this year as well as the 70th birthday of the NHS on the 5th July.

I have had another chance at enjoying my family, my work and continuing to chase my dreams. Let’s work together to give the NHS that chance.

This is a series of blogs starting from the day I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma. If you want to start at the beginning then please follow this link: 


December 25th 2017

December 25th 2017

It is Christmas Day and I so grateful to be celebrating this with my family. Our thoughts are not of religion but of family and love. We miss those who are no longer with us and celebrate the arrival of new bundles of joy. As we get older we realise that richness is not money but safety, health and well being. There is also great sadness realising that there are so many people who are not safe and have no access to healthcare.

Today of all days, just hug or talk to that someone special.

I want to say a special Merry Christmas to all of you. Thank you all for just being you!

With much love Stella


Post Acoustic Neuroma Surgery: 75% ish

Post Acoustic Neuroma Surgery: 75% ish

This is a series of blogs starting from the day I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma. If you want to start at the beginning then please follow this link: 


I am back at work! And I am exhausted.

I was so desperate to get back to work. And I managed to get back at month 3 and a half!

When do you know it is the right time? I don’t know. I had an occupational health check and was told to start on half a day per week! I managed to negotiate this to a day per week and then to phase it as I felt fit. We agreed that I was to start on administrative and management duties only, then build on the clinical and eventually start operating, which I will do in the next week (first week in September).

I look in the mirror and I see an older but normal me but I know that I am not really back to normal. One of my colleagues stated that ‘once you let air to the brain, it is never the same again’. It certainly feels like my brain has shifted in the way that it works and I really hope that it will go back to normal. I have to write thoughts down and am constantly texting myself lists so that I do not forget anything. My brain does not switch off at night and I am struggling to sleep well. I find that my balance does change when I am tired and I get tired very quickly. It is difficult to moan as there are many people in the Facebook group who are still off work at 6 months and really do not feel able to start back as yet. They have had occupational health visits at home and describe the feeling of not being believed as to how they feel, as they look normal and have to explain their headaches, dizziness and fatigue.  Everyone is so different and you are the only one who will know what is right for you.

Others in the Acoustic Neuroma support groups also talk about the travel insurance policies, which are shockingly high pre and post surgery, which might be expected. Acoustic neuromas are very slow-growing and if found when small, can be managed on a watch and wait policy. I was shocked to find that these patients are also having to pay a much higher insurance policy even though the medical risk is very, very small. I am sure we need to educate the insurance policy makers that these acoustic neuromas cannot just be included in the ‘brain tumour’ category!

Being back at work is strange as I am not really responsible for the patients on the ward as there is an excellent locum covering my duties. I am picking up my Clinical Director duties and it feels as if I have never been away. The NHS finances are very tight, there is no doubt that we need investment but it is our duty to make sure that we use the public purse well. Even thought the NHS is stretched so thinly, the NHS family are desperately ensuring that this disinvestment does not impact on patient care and safety and I feel very strongly that this aspect should not be compromised. I enjoy the budgets and business part of the NHS as much as looking after my patients and trainees and it is actually quite nice having protected time to do it as well as I can.

I keep getting hugs and well wishes from my trainees and also from my patients who spot me in the corridors of the hospital. Each time this happens it reminds me how lucky I am to be working in Croydon, where most patients who live in Croydon come to Croydon University Hospital and so you get to know people really well over 14 years! My colleagues are shocked that I have come back so early and have been very protective of me but yet so supportive. I still keep getting flowers!

Whilst life inside the hospital does not seem to have changed very much, life in the real world has been a whirlwind.

In the last three 3 months, there has been a General Election. I watched with excitement as the NHS became a political ‘hot’ topic again and really hoped that whoever won, there might be a change in the future planning of the NHS and then was very disappointed to see that there is no real change. There appeared to be a public movement to ensure that the NHS remained publicly available and accessible in the way it was founded and I hope that this continues. This was palpable at ‘The Specials’ concert that I attended with my family. They were amazing but the NHS was central to the banter between the crowd and the band. If you have never heard of the Specials, then take time to listen to one of their tracks over the weekend! Lots of memories from my childhood.

And then there was the Grenfell tower fire. I have never seen anything like it. I was interviewing when I first heard about it and was shocked to see the extent of what had happened so quickly. I am sure my emotions just copied everyone else. I was brought to tears on hearing and seeing the horrific events that unfolded, amazed and proud of the people in this country who just came out to help and saddened by the lack of organisation demonstrated by authorities at the time. I started crying seeing the mountains of donations and realising that there were so few survivors to actually claim them. The shocking revelation as to why the fire may have gripped hold so quickly followed by the assessment of so many towers across the UK just brought home the message that we need to manage the public purse but not by putting people in harm’s way. The haunting image of the firefighters sitting exhausted against the backdrop of Grenfell tower with tears in their eyes will remain imprinted in my memory forever.

There have also been two tragic attacks in London and the attack in Manchester.  I had friends and trainees involved in the care of the London victims. The toll on the victims and their families cannot be imagined. There is also a toll on the Emergency Services and the NHS staff who also need debriefing and will take time to come to terms with what they have seen.

I went for a drink with my sister in a London roof top bar. We spent a lovely evening in the sun and I had my first drink of alcohol since my surgery. As we both looked out across London’s skyline and the bridges that span the Thames, we could not stop feeling saddened at the events of the previous weeks and of Manchester where innocent adults and children had become victims of a war that has not been declared officially but had become an entity insidiously.

Even though these events had occurred so recently, it was great to see London alive and kicking. We will not give up our liberties and way of life through fear and violence!

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I also spent a great evening with friends in Twickenham at a restaurant ‘Mosaico’. It is a lovely Italian restaurant and I went with friends from across the world. We sat and ate gorgeous food, drank wines imported from the globe and listened to Jazz music played by a Brazilian group. This is how we should be living, enjoying the best of all cultures and respecting that there are differences amongst us all but that they CAN be overcome.




Heels On: Week 12 post Acoustic Neuroma Surgery

Heels On: Week 12 post Acoustic Neuroma Surgery

This is a series of blogs starting from the day I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma. If you want to start at the beginning then please follow this link: 


Weeks 6 to 12

Determination has now taken over from Frustration. I need to set myself daily tasks that MUST be completed by the end of the day.

Scented flowers, some of which I have never seen before, seem to be a feature of my recovery and continue to arrive! I know in the future the hint of flowery perfume will transport me back to this time. When my mother passed, I inherited all her beautiful silk saris, some handpicked by my father as wedding gifts. They have their own place upstairs and whenever I open that wardrobe, I can picture my mother wearing each sari to a cherished special occasion. I can also imagine Mummy standing beside me as the waft of perfume that my mother used to wear hugs me.  Somehow that wardrobe continues to provide comfort. The saris are classically beautiful and vintage, some embroidered with gold and silk threads, they will be worn again and again and then handed down but only I know their true worth.

I have dried all my flowers and have started making items for a charitable sale in the future. It is a healing activity. I have to concentrate and plan each frame. It is detailed work and makes my headache return each day but I feel a real sense of achievement every time I finish one. My sister posts a finished frame onto her social media site and I get a sale!! How exciting. Now I am spurred on! My collection is growing and I will arrange a celebratory gathering in the future with an aim to raise money by selling all my wares.


Life is normally so busy and it is rare to get a chance to slow down. This illness has forced me do so. My two children bought me a beautiful painting set at Christmas pointing out that I used to love to paint and suggesting that this forced time off work would be a good time to restart. I have had the wooden chest containing the oils and watercolours out for several weeks but have not had any energy to get going. I now start slowly and rediscover the joy in painting. Why is it that we get so consumed with work and children that everything else is put aside. Or maybe it is just me.

I have my first check up at the John Radcliffe. I get up early, get dressed and actually put some make up on. I look okay and decide that I need some wedge heels to complete the look. This will be the first time since my operation but I am determined to manage my heels today. I wear flats in the car but change to heels walking to my outpatient appointment. There is a notion that suggests that what patients wear changes the patient’s perception of illness as well as the clinicians’ thoughts on discharge. Pyjama paralysis is the term used to describe the inertia that creeps in when you are in pyjamas even when you are in your own home. And this gets much worse in hospital. One of my previous Consultants used to say that if a patient (female) had lipstick on then they needed to go home. As trainees, spurred on by this, we would encourage our patients to put lipstick on to persuade this Consultant to send a patient home when the patient was desperate to do so!

My sister reminds me to write down any questions I may wish to ask as I will get distracted when I get to see my Surgeon. I know the two most important ones. I really, really want to start back at work and would love to drive again.

Thinking of my current inability to drive takes me back to the time when I really disappointed my Daddy. At the age of 88, he was still driving but was becoming unsafe (in my opinion). I felt that he really should stop driving but knew that this would take away his independence. We did discuss this as a family, all of whom agreed, but I was the one who had the conversation with him. He was so irritated by me and it was only when we promised that we would take him for an independent driving test, that he agreed to consider this any further. The driving test was as expected and the team felt that Daddy could drive but only in the daytime and only to and from a limited number of destinations (all very close). They messaged this so well that Daddy felt empowered to make a decision that if he was not a 100% safe that it was probably better not to drive. I learnt many lessons about communication that day!

My sister drove me to the John Radcliffe and the trees en route have never looked so good. The cherry blossoms are in bloom and seem to have peppered all the hedgerows as we travel to Oxford. I have many pictures planned in my mind when I next find an opportunity to paint. Talking to my sister, I realise that I am struggling with the right-sided deafness which is worse than I ever expected. In quiet conditions or in a one to one conversation, I am fine. In the car, with music on, I struggle with hearing my sister clearly and I am sure that this in itself makes me feel tired. My facial movements are completely normal but I have a very dry right eye but because I keep rubbing it, I have developed great bags underneath this eye that no amount of eye cream will improve. My balance is manageable and I know that this will get better. The tiredness and inability to hold multiple thoughts is frustrating but now expected and I will just have to manage. I have started texting myself everytime I remember something I need to do otherwise I forget.

I have joined many Acoustic Neuroma groups and feel guilty reading posts from others. I have been so lucky post operatively whilst many fellow patients have not. Surgeons are skilled clinicians but my father was always the one to point out that ‘no matter what a surgeon does, Mother Nature is responsible for healing’. I managed to escape in the healing process without any major complications so certainly all the good wishes and prayers sent to me, worked.

I follow the progress of ordinary people like me who have undergone surgery previously or in parallel to me. Some have made the same progress as I and I laugh when I see that our milestones and frustrations have paralleled. Others have had a much slower and debilitating progress. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel but I have to put myself in the shoes of others whose whole lives have been turned upside down. Some have had significant facial disfigurement and are wondering out loud on social media how much recovery they will have. Others are still nauseated and very unbalanced. Others are six months out of work and are still struggling even with a phased return to work.

Every Surgeon that I know goes to work aiming to improve the lives of their patients rather than cause life changing events through surgery but complications happen in all of our hands even when surgery is really straightforward. This is why we ensure our patients are consented fully and are aware of  what might happen. I do this every day I practice but the absolute gamble as to whether YOU are the one who will encounter these problems cannot be foretold and I had completely underestimated the anxiety that this causes.

I attend my outpatients with my Surgeon. I think he is pleasantly surprised when I walk in. I still look a wreck despite my make up as my hair has become white. On men this looks distinguished, on a woman, well I just look old. He is pleased with the scar although this is still healing. I explain that I wish to dye my hair and although he agrees, his Nurse Specialist suggests that I wait another two weeks until the scar is fully healed. He knows that I am keen to go back to work and suggests a phased return at three months. He warns me that I will continue to be tired and I explain that I really believe him now.

The Surgeon and I had discussed the compromise of leaving some neuroma behind in order to maximise the preservation of the facial nerve. I have already had my follow-up MRI last week and we go through the scan results together. There is a 5mm residual part of the neuroma wrapped around the facial nerve which is very easy to see. It will need monitoring and if it grows, it may need cyberknife therapy in the future. My Surgeon explains that I will need another scan in October. That is a long time away and I forget about it. He is happy that I can start driving when I feel ready and when looking over my right shoulder stops hurting my neck. I feel like I am almost back on track.

I am so elated that I go shopping into Epsom the following day with my neighbour. I wear flats and enjoy looking around. But this is too much, too quickly. My body tells me to slow down and I fall asleep exhausted in the early evening.

I seem to be making steady progress and I reevaluate my previous commitments. I had enrolled in the Kings Fund Senior Clinical Leaders course and originally decided that I would not attend module 2 as I would not be up to it. I had not made any promises to myself after desperately wanting to attend the Association of Surgeons in Training conference at week 6 and really just being so naive at thinking I would be able to make it! I feel that I could attend the Kings Fund if I get a taxi and sleep there and back. I get my hair dyed as soon as I can so that there is some semblance of normality and I feel back in control. The course is excellent but I cannot physically attend on day 3 as I am so exhausted and end up in bed all weekend.

I still cannot engage with emails as I struggle to concentrate for long enough and I have not dared open my work emails. Twitter has been great way of communication, and a saving grace, as it makes you feel that you are part of the real world. You can Tweet from your bed and it takes very little concentration as you can dive in and out very easily from any conversation.

I am beginning to feel normal though and the weekend of Week 12 has been a great goal to look forward to. My sister and I have booked birthday presents for each other and this has ended in a personal shopping expedition, a styling session, a photo shoot and an overnight stay in the Tower Guoman in Central London. We travel into town and book in. We have a fantastic room overlooking Tower Bridge and there are crowds of people in town. We travel into Oxford Street and start the session with the personal shoppers. One takes her time and understands her client and guides her to exactly the right styles for her body shape. The other, does not get to know her client well and pulls clothes that are completely inappropriate and makes the client feel quite deflated. This reminds me of our current trainees, if you take time to get to know them and what they need, they tend to do well and flourish in a firm. If there is no educational engagement then the trainee gets along but does not feel invested in and just about survives in the current environment.

We go out for a Chinese in the evening and I look around at people walking past. We have no idea how people are managing in their lives, whether they are sad or happy, well or not, financially secure or just coping. We all wear our own facades and get on with our busy lives. Perhaps we should all take a moment or two to really look around and smile or do a good deed but not let anyone know.

The following afternoon we enjoy our photo shoot. I look at the photos which show the aftermath of illness which cannot be hidden by make up. I think back again to my companions on the acoustic neuroma journey.  Everyone has their own story and determination to back to as near normal as possible. The sharing of stories has always been a way of helping each other. Knowing what has been achieved by others gives us the hope that we can achieve this too. I look forward to the improvements and updates shared on social media and thank everyone for their honesty.








This is a series of blogs starting from the day I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma. If you want to start at the beginning then please follow this link: 


Weeks 2 to 6

The last four weeks have been amazingly hard as well as fantastic. I have been at two ends of that spectrum on a daily basis. It is incredible what an operation does to you. The exhaustion that follows surgery makes you feel vulnerable as your independence fails and you need help for so many things. On the other hand, it sets the hurdles that become sequential challenges on the way to recovery.

The second week really reset my own barometer as to what I should expect to do for the first few weeks.  Simple tasks such as brushing my teeth, having a shower and having breakfast remained major challenges. Sleep became a necessity and I slept most of the day just waking up to be fed. Cleaning the house, cooking and ironing were not a priority.

I have a wonderful neighbour who visits everyday and has made me (yes made me) go for a walk as long as the weather is good. I am glad that I have not bumped into anyone else for the first few weeks as I have been out wearing pyjamas and a coat.  Just walking to the end of the drive seems such an achievement and walking to the end of the road feels like finishing a marathon. Even though it is cold, I am wearing my flat open toe shoes which is my excuse not to go for a walk when it rains. I think it was in week three that I tried wearing my heels in the bedroom as a test run. I haven’t tried since.

The children have been home which has been a welcome distraction. I cannot believe that they have finished their second term at University. My parents used to say that time seems to pass by quicker the older you get. I think I finally understand what they meant. This year is a milestone as both boys went to University at the same time and the ’empty nest feeling’ became an entity.

I think back to the start. When we found out in October that I had an acoustic neuroma, we made a decision to let the family know when we had made a decision as to when and what we were going to do. Telling the children seemed to be a special hurdle and I really did not want to tell them. It seemed wrong to tell them during their first term at University when they should be having the time of their lives so we decided we would tell them when they came home for Christmas. Even then, I tried to get out of it. There just seemed to be so many things going on which were perfect excuses. We spent the first weekend of their Christmas break at my in laws at a Christmas party. The next week was busy as I was on call and then it was a friend’s birthday party the following Saturday. We had a family dinner on the Sunday and the boys went upstairs to play computer games when we decided we really did have to tell them as otherwise it might ruin Christmas. My husband called them down saying that there was something that we both needed to discuss with them.

Eventually they both came down and my husband explained what was going on, my diagnosis, the need for an operation and potential complications. Neither boy seemed phased by this, were very supportive and said they would take time off from their studies during this time. The oldest one seemed perturbed and then declared ‘You know we thought you were going to tell us something else’.  Then he explained what he meant. He had noticed that I had not drunk alcohol at both parties and that I was and looked tired. In addition, as my balance became much worse when it was dark, my husband had helped me back to the car the night before, he had noticed that Daddy had become VERY lovey dovey! There was clearly only one reason for all of this – I must be pregnant, after all the boys had left us on our own for ten weeks!!!!! And apparently, this would have been a more disastrous scenario than the diagnosis of an acoustic neuroma. I am not sure why we had been so reticent in telling them as they took the information in their stride and have just been wonderful.

I managed to avoid visitors during the last few weeks as trying to socialise continues to be tiring. Very good friends and immediate family have come to visit and looked after themselves, making me tea and bringing even more flowers and chocolates. My hearing started becoming an issue. I seem to have lost the ability to isolate the direction of sound as well as hear when there is lots of background noise. The noise generated by a handful of visitors caused a headache and was irritating as I could not follow a conversation in the room. I needed to pace myself as I certainly developed more symptoms when I was tired; my balance changes and the side of my head becomes increasingly more painful. The more I slept, the better my symptoms seemed to be.

After four weeks my friend decided I needed to go out as I was going stir crazy! She pushed me hard and finally got me to say yes. We decided to aim for afternoon tea at a local tea shop. She had chosen one that would be quiet and also would require the least amount of walking. I pulled on trousers and a top, washed my hair and dried it but still could not summon the energy for make up sadly. I looked in the mirror and still looked exhausted. I went grey around 30 and normally have to dye my hair every 6 weeks. Men with grey hair seem chic whilst women look a little old unless they can wear the look well. As I am not allowed to dye my hair for 8 weeks, I was developing a real badger streak but there was nothing I could do about it in the short-term. I had also noticed that the side of my scalp on the operated side was slightly numb and was more sensitive to changes in temperature. A good scarf seemed to manage this problem so I ventured out wrapped up warm and cosy.

I was driven down to Headley and we went to a really lovely small tea room and village shop. It was perfect, no one else was around and we had the table by the window just as the sun came out. We ordered scones with jam and tea although I could have quite happily order the whole menu. The scones were freshly baked and warm. The butter was just soft enough to spread and there was heaps of home-made jam. The tea was served in a mish mash of old china crockery which matched by the fact it was all vintage. What was not to love? We spent several hours chatting and I felt amazing! If I could do this once, I could do this again.

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I spent the next few days recovering as my energy reserve seem to be at an all time low. It was almost as if my energy was rationed, if I used too much energy on one day, I would have to pay back on another.

I developed small ways of keeping myself busy over these few weeks. I have (with help) put all the flowers I have received into silica gel so that they will dry. This has been trial and error but we seem to be getting better at it. As the flowers dry, they have been stored in plastic boxes in my kitchen and it now looks as if I have a workshop rather than a kitchen. I make plans to do something creative with them and have ordered some frames and paper butterflies. If I can make some items, I will sell them for charity at a later date. I also decide I can make rose soaps and candles so order some moulds and wicks. I also decide that I will make the flower pictures for my two boys and keep them as fiftieth birthday presents for them. I therefore order two large frames and borders. Now that all plans are being actioned, I wait for the Amazon deliveries to start arriving!

We really are so lucky to have the two boys. They both came home for Easter to spend time with me but also kept themselves busy. The youngest one has been lambing and has really enjoyed seeing the birth of new life and taking responsibility for decision-making that ensures a good outcome for the sheep and their new lambs. There was sadness too with one lamb being born with a neurological condition that was debilitating and required a humane end to its life. My son was impressed with the passion of the farmer to ensure that his flock got the best care and start to life.

This joy of life was in contrast to the experience of the oldest who went to Poland with friends to visit the remains of Auschwitz in Poland during the same time period. He recounted the emotions and feelings when visiting the vast area. He described the unimaginable scale and the efficiency of a sheer killing machine which was only understood when you visited in person. He was clearly moved and could not understand how such evil could have been inflicted on so many.

Having been through surgery and feeling as if I have been given another chance at life, I feel even more emotional at the evil that still exists in society. The lessons of the past need to be remembered to ensure we do not drift into further atrocities. We need to stand united and enjoy each other’s differences and do what we can do to influence in our small circle, hoping that the positivity flows out and gains momentum.

Wishing for peace in the World.





Will making new doctors work in the NHS for five years improve retention? BMJ Blog

Will making new doctors work in the NHS for five years improve retention? BMJ Blog

It appears from the language used in the consultation that there is a desire to seek justification prior to implementation. A recent poll on YouGov reminds me of the quote “you need to ask the right question to get the right answer.” The heavily biased question: “Under new government plans doctors could be forced to work in the UK for at least five years after completion of training or payback for some of their training courses. This is because many doctors leave the UK after training to work in other countries. It costs the taxpayer £230,000 to train a doctor over and above the fees paid by the individual. Do you think doctors trained here should pay some or all of this back if they leave the UK less than five years after training?” gained a 91% positive response.

H L Mencken wrote “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” This feels like the wrong answer to the wrong question.

I think back to my early years post qualification. I worked over 80 hours per week doing a 2 in 5 rota. I was taught medical skills and enjoyed great camaraderie with my colleagues, spending time together, and working as a team. In my first house job, I was on the surgical on call rota and there were many more junior doctors on call in 1991 for a shift than there are now in 2017. My consultants took me under their wing and mentored me about my career plans. I spent four years deciding on my final career pathway and enjoyed my jobs. Although I was tired, I felt valued by the system. There is no doubt that the hours did not suit everyone and the reduction in hours was welcomed by the profession.

Now, trainees are working in an intense and underfunded system where staff do not appear to be valued. The environment developed has forced junior doctors to think twice about their long-term career options. Those that wish to stay are galloping through their first year of clinical practice, developing their portfolios to show baseline competence and a competitive CV for their chosen speciality. To achieve the essential criteria, they need evidence of leadership, management, teaching abilities, audit, and quality improvement projects. They need the ability to convene courses as well as be trained, and also be great mentors and colleagues. And of course, they need to pass the necessary exams. Within 18 months they need to have a concrete career plan and they need to achieve a core training post to have any incremental increase in salary. Team structures have been abolished and junior doctors do not feel part of the team.

It is no wonder that trainees feel demoralised and burnt out. They are coerced (outside of any goodwill left) to cover for absent colleagues due to rota gaps and often need a break after two years in a high-pressure environment. They take time out by going abroad, or explore career options in trust posts or as locums to allow them to test out other avenues whilst they decide on their final career pathway.

At present half of Foundation doctors (2 years post qualification) decide not to continue into a definitive career pathway in the UK. The Government suggests that conscription into five years of NHS service post qualification could improve retention akin to military training. The parallel to military recruitment and retention would be welcomed if the terms and conditions were similar. At present military medical cadets are paid a salary throughout medical school as well as educational fees. These trainees are valued by the military and are resources that are heavily invested in, to ensure they are equipped for service. If a military cadet wishes to leave, they can give notice and are required to pay back any expenses incurred. If similar terms were offered to medical students and doctors, because they are a valued resource which is worth investing in, retention would not be a problem and the discussion of conscription would not be necessary. Yet again, the Department of Health is trying to fix a problem with a sticking plaster rather than understanding the root of the problem.

Would a five year conscription improve the retention of junior doctors? Or will it cause an exodus of trainees after five years?

Are these the right questions, or do we need to ask “Why is there a retention crisis in the NHS?” We need to address junior doctors’ morale in order to solve this.


Stella Vig has been the foundation programme director at Croydon University Hospital for 10 years and holds many roles, including those of core surgery and higher surgery training programme director, JCST chair for core surgery, and general surgery SAC member. She is one of three clinical directors for Croydon and is keen to see efficiency and excellence in patient care within the NHS. 

Competing Interests: I am a member of RCS England Council and a trustee for the Society of Chiropody and Podiatry. 

13/03/17: I’m 50 & Day 14 post acoustic neuroma surgery

13/03/17: I’m 50 & Day 14 post acoustic neuroma surgery

This is a series of blogs starting from the day I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma. If you want to start at the beginning then please follow this link: 


Today is my 50th Birthday!!!

I have been home one week and time seems to have stood still again. I have managed very little. Although I was warned that I would be tired once home, the reality is very different. It is impossible to do anything without feeling so fatigued. The need for sleep is immense but not always possible and I find myself awake for hours at night, with endless random thoughts and dreams. Partly because of this, I have not managed to get downstairs after a shower before 2pm. My head hurts and my neck aches but all the time I am grateful that I did not have any visible facial complications or major balance problems.

I have not been outside of the house yet and my plans of daily walks have gone out of the window. Daytime television and the internet are fantasies, as I cannot concentrate on anything for a long time without a serious headache. I am reminded how hard our brains normally work without humans paying any attention to these inner workings. I count myself lucky that I have such fantastic colleagues and friends that I have been able to delegate all my activities with confidence and have left my trainees in great hands. Despite this, odd thoughts keep flitting into my brain  of things I have not completed but these are very random and it is difficult to hold onto these thoughts to make any decisions! I am really struggling to see how I am going to return back to normal.

I have had the follow-up phone call from the John Radcliffe and am progressing as expected by all apart from myself! I will know next week whether this was a benign tumour but in my heart of hearts, I already know that all will be fine.

I think about today. I had started planning my 50th birthday a year ago. My sister and I had considered many ideas as to what we could do and had started to buy various little accessories for the party. I had never considered that I might not be well enough to throw a party. My diary is normally overfull and I could do with expanding my day from 24 to 30 hours. I really enjoy being busy and being organised (at work that is) and have many commitments in the diary a year in advance of now. This illness has made me realise the value of time and the need to enjoy the now. I know that I would not have stopped to consider my career and life plan without a serious illness to stop me and I am just so lucky that this is one illness that will let me get back to as near normal as possible.

When I woke up today, there were many cards, and the flowers have continued to arrive. I had so many beautiful bouquets since I arrived home and the doorbell has not stopped all morning with further deliveries. Each one is thoughtfully chosen with a heartfelt message attached and a trigger to make me cry. Patients, colleagues, friends, neighbours, trainees and complete strangers have left messages on the blog, Facebook and Whatsapp. How can I not feel better?

I struggle to get out of bed and have breakfast. I have been trying for two hours but I know what I want. I have developed a longing for toast with lots of butter. We must all go back to happy, safe times when we are in need. My mother and father were market traders when I was little. On Saturdays we would travel to Holyhead in Anglesey, North Wales. We used to arrive very early and would unload the van and set up the stall with my parents, brother and sister. In the far corner of the market, there was a huge bakery stall. They sold freshly baked bread, which first thing in the morning would still be piping hot. The smell of fresh bread drew so many customers and was good for trade for all in the market. They also sold homemade Welsh butter and jam. The three of us would enjoy doorstops of fresh bread with melting butter aplenty for breakfast and so the smell of bread always takes me back to this time. Holyhead market which was held in a Grade II listed Market Hall which was designed in 1855 by J Edwards Thomas. My brother, sister and I visited North Wales last summer and were saddened to see the ongoing demise of this beautiful building, I am so pleased to have learnt that Holyhead council have won a £2.4 miilion Heritage Lottery Fund grant and will restore it to its glory. Daddy would have been very pleased.


See I told you I hold random thoughts! I really do need to get up nd I need to have a shower. The plastic chair in the shower is a godsend as my legs feel so weak and I cannot stand for a long time. I feel like my 90-year-old father who needed a seat in the shower in the latter years! It still takes me around an hour to shower and get dressed. I cannot dry my hair with a hairdryer and natural drying leaves me with very frizzy hair. I have not been able to summon the energy to put on any make up and contact lenses are a luxury. There will be no photos of me on my birthday then!

The immediate family will be gathering in the evening and I am further grateful for mother nature’s best gift to me, of health and well-being. Everyday I am thankful that I have not had to manage a shortened life expectancy nor a  physical life changing event. Those that do are so courageous and I can only empathise but cannot even start to fathom the emotions and decision-making undertaken by those individuals.

As I try to choose what to wear, I am reminded of previous birthdays. One of the delights of working in the NHS is that you develop an extended family. Traditionally we have had a family celebration and a work celebration. Somehow over the past few years the trainees have started baking me cakes and decorating them. The trainees are so talented! Every year the themes have become more amazing and the cakes are so professional.

One of the trainees has turned professional and baked my sister’s 40th birthday cake. She loved it!


She also made my Daddy’s 90th birthday cake which was incredible.


We added photos of the many friends and family whose company Daddy enjoyed on smaller cupcakes. Everyone enjoyed finding their own ones!


We often celebrate with my NHS family in a central London venue as this is convenient to all. One has become a firm favourite and we get very special treatment. Yet again a few years ago, we all had a very enjoyable evening and then I was surprised with my birthday cake.


I can only try to describe the horror on the faces of the other guests at the venue. We all work in a clinical setting and there are many situations which would make people turn away but it is the bread and butter of our workload and we get on with it. I think we forget how alien these situations can be to other people not in our profession. There are so many sad times, when as Daddy used to say, we cannot halt the natural timeline when people pass away, that we find a way to manage the strong emotions within our groups of friends.

The cake was amazing and the trainees had clearly thought about the things I really care about. I am passionate about ensuring that patients with diabetes do not develop foot problems and if they do that they get rapid access to care. Sometimes patients need minor or major amputations, which causes great mental and physical anguish to these patients and their families. We use maggots alongside surgical treatments for these patients. We call the maggots, minute surgical operatives, as they eat any dead tissue and clean a wound beautifully without destroying the healthy tissue around the damaged site. In the early days we would use free ranging maggots that would sometimes escape the bandaging containing them. Nowadays we use maggots encased in very fine netting which allows them to work but keeps them in one place!

This cake was a replica of a diabetic patient’s foot complete with an amputated toe and maggots which had escaped the netting! We were enthralled but my apologies to any non NHS staff who were put off their food that night!

Last year, I had another wonderful cake and really did not want to cut into it! I remember feeling exhausted during the evening and it is only in retrospect that one can explain why.


This cake was decorated to resemble a open human abdomen and came complete with surgical instruments with blood still dripping off them! It took me all evening to agree to cut and share it as it was absolutely beautiful.

This year feels very special. Yes of course a 50th birthday is special but this year feels as if I have been given a second lease of life.

I have spent each day post surgery in pyjamas as it takes too much energy to get into clothes but I have had to make the effort today. I seem to have spent the whole day having a shower and getting into trousers and a top. I cannot summon the energy to put on make up and as I am not allowed to dry my hair yet, I come downstairs looking like a bedraggled rat!

I must have my stitches out today and rather than wasting the time of the district nurses, I have asked my husband to take them out (with full permission from my Surgeon). There are millions of stitches and he takes them out for me very carefully and slowly. What a great birthday present!!! It is really odd how each of these very small steps feel like a gigantic leap towards being normal again.

I am spoilt by neighbours and family and I have a gorgeous cake bought by my husband (and a second one bought by my sister) but I am so tired. I cut the cakes and open my presents and cards but I just want to go back to sleep.

We make a decision that I will have a 50th birthday again next year and make sure I invite all my friends. It is saddening to think of my close friends from my early years, who I am in touch with via Facebook and LinkedIn but have not actually met or talked to for many years. I make a promise to myself to get in touch with all and try to meet up at least once in the next year. And I know that as soon as we start chatting it will be like we only talked yesterday. Children and work seem to take up all available time but I need to find time to catch up with things that really matter.

I go to bed as I have a headache developing. Thoughts start to wander into the future. My children are 18 and 20. I start to think about their 50th birthdays. What will life be like 30 years from now? 30 years ago we developed the mobile phone, disposable contact lenses and CDs effectively wiping out my beloved cassettes. The Mackintosh computer was the in thing! How we have changed. The current mobile phones have as much computing power as a roomful of computers and music is downloaded and played so CDs are going out of fashion. In contrast vinyls are making a comeback. What will be in vogue in 2047? Driverless cars, flying cars, communication by telepathy, travel by thought? Who knows?

Will global warming have caused shifts in water levels with London being flooded? Will the Great Barrier Reef still be colourful? Will we have inhabited Space? What kind of world will we live in? I say we but I will be 80. A macabre thought fills my head. Will I still be here by then? My Mummy suddenly passed away 63 of a heart attack and everyone tells me that I look like her.

Will the world have found peace or will it become more divided than now? Will it still be here? Too many questions and no answers. Now my head has started to hurt. More thoughts wander in and out. I have so many flowers. Perhaps I can dry them and turn my 50th birthday flowers into a present for the kids for their 50th. I start to consider all possibilities and fall asleep.