It is amazing the people you can meet under the clock in a London railway station - not just in crime novels, or old fashioned (pre-online dating app) romantic dramas, but also to talk about health.
Recently, a colleague suggested a meeting with his friend who might benefit from some knowledge or advice I had. Little did I know how it would be the reverse, and how what I thought might be a general networking chat turned into one of the most diverting conversations I’ve had about health, and not just at Waterloo station.
I never expected that my "unexpected conversation" would be on this forum, sharing thoughts with people I do not know.
When I decided to take up medicine, it was not only my desire to follow in my parents' footsteps but it was their wish too. As I stood at the crossroads between college and university, I questioned whether I wanted to be a doctor, a physicist or a mathematician. Medicine was the final choice and I categorically announced: I shall be doing something different. I am not going to be a gynaecologist as people expected lady doctors to become.
I work as a general surgeon and being a woman in a part of the world which is still very conservative, my patients are mostly ladies. A large number of these patients are those with breast cancer; each person with a different story to tell, and behind every story, a different reason.
As a woman, one can easily empathize with these patients, and one tends to listen to their stories: financial constraints did not allow them to seek treatment; the children had exams; they were waiting for the harvest; a daughter has to get married. Women tend to put their families first, and in doing so, often suffer in silence. For those living in more affluent and developed societies, this may be hard to comprehend.
It’s a serious question to tackle, particularly when sporting a chocolate moustache, carrot behind my ear and half my starter on my trousers. Messy eater I may be, but at least this evening there’s an explanation – I’ve just eaten in the dark, in a restaurant unlike any other in this bright city.
Dans le Noir describes itself as a ‘sensory journey’ - dining in the pitch black, served by staff with visually impairment. It’s a place where the darkness is overwhelming, both in sense and emotion. We’re expertly guided to our table, hands on each other’s shoulders by Darren, our waiter and guide for the evening.
The funding OPAAL has received for sharing our Unexpected Conversations is being used to make a contribution towards printing costs for our storytelling publications. Having hard copies enables us to take our publications on the road and this has sparked new conversations with health and care professionals, potential volunteers and service users too as they hear about how advocacy has supported their peers.
I’ve been working with a small group of volunteers who want to use their experience of cancer, and of supporting their peers through advocacy, to influence decision makers in health and care. When we first got together last year to talk about how we might structure the presentations they deliver to local services we hoped these conversations about our experience would yield interest in the service and lead to new referrals.
We touched on the idea of self-care when a group of us (all health care professionals) met at Mettricks Café in Southampton for dinner. I chose to spend my Unexpected Conversations funding at Mettricks as it has a strong ethos to give back to the community, which turned out to be fitting for the path our conversations followed!
We discussed our need to be strong mentally and physically to be able to work with our patients and clients to the best of our abilities.
“And he said it’s cancerous…and as he kept talking I felt I was drowning, I didn’t hear any of what was said next, hearing cancer stopped me in my tracks. I’d planned to meet my oldest sister for lunch after, not expecting this at all.” (Older People’s Cancer Voices participant.)
Our work is often about unexpected conversations, starting with the cancer diagnosis, which can be an unexpected conversation in itself. For 18 months I’ve been leading on our Department of Health funded Older People’s Cancer Voices project; it’s about amplifying the voices of older people affected by cancer, bringing advocacy to life through the stories of older people who have accessed it, and those volunteers involved in its provision. We’ve tried to give older people access to a wide range of tools to support them to share their experiences.
It was one of those conversations. I put the phone down, swore gently to myself, and sat staring into space. Four hours later and I still don’t know what to do with the information I received. Putting it on a screen is one thing, finding an adequate personal response is another.
I found Alex on the internet. He’s fiendishly articulate, writes brilliantly and happens to have spent some time detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He also, it turned out, was open to having a conversation with me about health care in prisons. It’s that conversation that I’m recording here, and in acknowledgement that in a world of multiple truths, this is one of them.
11am, and the hot November sun beats down on the waiting line. E-day minus 2, and the atmosphere is pregnant with hope and expectation. We are two days away from the making of history, the first female President of the USA, the shattering of the glass ceiling. We are hours away from seeing President Obama, introduced by Stevie Wonder, jetting in for a final rallying cry in decisive divisive Florida. We have flown across the world to help get out the Clinton vote, and now we are in line to see the President.
This line is going nowhere slowly, but the atmosphere is almost festive. There are horses doing what looks to me to be dressage steps, a flotilla of bikers remembering the victims of the Pride Orlando shooting, and a golf buggy of elderly ladies driving round adorned with American flags, in what I can only assume is a rallying spirit.
The best unexpected conversation I have had was with a geriatrician I was working with a few years ago. She had the view that no older person she looked after was a single unit. She said that occasionally they have a gaggle around them keeping them going - daughters, neighbours, paid carers, but generally they came in pairs (i.e. couples - usually married, or sometimes in close companionship), each holding the other up.
She felt that the best physicians - or any member of the clinical team - knew to treat the unit, to ask as much about the quiet, accompanying support, as the person with their needs and hopes in the chair or on the trolley.