It’s a marathon not a sprint
Interview with Cath White OBE
In this interview at St Marys Hospital Manchester, Cath White talks about her journey through medicine and gives advice for younger female doctors thinking about their career path. She stresses the importance of following your heart, the necessity for good friends, the power of a good book and exploring the wider world. All of these will help you to become the best doctor you can be. Interviewed by Chloe Gimbuta [HLA Scholar 2018-19]
First of all if you could briefly summarise your career so far?
I went to Liverpool University and did medicine there, and then, I had my first child when I was a medical student, so I was a little bit out of sync with my colleagues. I qualified six months after them. I went into hospital medicine, the usual junior doctor stuff, went into GP training, became a GP, and saw an advert for female doctors to train up to become forensic physicians. I had no idea what that was but it sounded interesting, so I applied. I got a job here at St Marys and have been here ever since.
I got the job as clinical director in 2003. For a while I ran this concurrently with general practice but in 2012 I left general practice and now solely do forensic work. We run SARC and a centre in Mersey side. We cover greater Manchester, Cheshire and Merseyside. So in terms of doctors there are 40 to 50, all female, all working in sexual violence work.
Barriers you’ve faced along the way and any additional barriers faced being female?
I think back in the day, early on, there were some attitudes that you wouldn’t see here today. I remember going for an interview at a hospital to get on a GP training scheme and at the time I had two children and it was all male interviewers and they all wanted to know what my husband thought of me applying for the job. You just wouldn’t get that these days. You certainly would not be able to ask any men the same question. Other than that, I do not think so. Women have been sold that you can have everything and I think that it is hard to have everything. You do have to make some choices. I think that line you can have everything, does do a group of women a disservice and makes you feel like you have to have everything and if you did not then you were a failure.
What I would say to younger doctors coming along, it is not a race. You do not have to do everything all at once. Especially these days, people are going to have to be working until they are 95 or something ridiculous. So you do not have to do everything all the time.
I never had a career plan. Just go with what interests you and go with where your heart is telling you to go. You do need the building blocks so when your heart says go for this job you have got the rest in the bag making it easier to apply to those positions.
How was it having children and having a career – time out etc?
No not really because I do not think it was done as much then. The first one I was a medical student, and the second one was post FY1, I was out for 6 months then. I have 4 children. Each one, I did not have much time, perhaps if I had the option I would have had more time, but to me there did not appear to have these options. I hope that it would be a bit different today. With a baby and a toddler that was quite tough.
Did family support play a key role in making this happen?
I think it would have been incredibly hard if you did not have that. Good partner, good family network, good friends. People to help.
Tell me more about your work with the UN and Unicef and how that has slotted in to life?
These are all additional things that I have done over the years. The Unicef work was based in Cambodia. The UN work has been going on the longest. Based in Palestine, started in 2012. This is hard work but really interesting and and you feel on the whole you are making a bit of a difference. It is the balancing act of time and time away. I do this in my own time, my annual leave. I find it extremely interesting. You just think if you can make a little bit of difference to someone down the line then its worthwhile.
Have you experienced positive discrimination within your career?
Maybe this job because its female doctors, I might have been of benefit but on the whole, I do not think I’ve been a recipient of this.
How do you relax?
Over the years I do a lot of sports. In my team, quite a lot of players I have played netball with since I was 11 years old. It is quite a sociable thing. I do quite a lot of running. I have got dogs. My idea if I am really up against it I would like to be walking or running along the river with the dogs. I try to build it into my week. Socialising, I have a small group of friends who I have been friends with for a long time. I think it is really important to make time for your friends. Last week for example, I got a text from my friend asking what time should they come to my house, I’d completely forgotten I had arranged it. I was on the verge of cancelling it but then I thought what is it about. What is life about. You are always busy there is always a deadline. You see your friends, they are not medics, we do not talk about work and that is really therapeutic. You have to find whatever is for you. I read a lot, well, do not read, listen to audio books, but that’s okay, they are book clubs not reading groups. I listen when I am walking down the river. That is great. If you have a good book, it transports you to a different place, time, culture. That is fantastic. They can be a positive distraction and sometimes when you are reading a book that is really grim you think what am I moaning about. I find that really great.
What advice would you give to young medical students or doctors thinking about their career?
Quite a lot of the girls at medical school who I have spoken to about it, are quite stressed about where to take our career. I was working with a consultant in a clinic and he asked me what I wanted to do. I do not know, I think it is one of those things where you just have to see where life takes you but I suggested a couple of things to him and he was just like no. I suggested emergency medicine to which he responded ‘do you want to do that for the rest of your life’.
I think he has a point. I did quite a bit of A&E and I did really enjoy it and toyed with the idea for a while. I looked at the consultants in the department whom I liked and thought, do I want their life and I said no. Having said that I have ended up here with 24/7 responsibility. You never know how things are going to change though. When I started in General Practice, we used to do all of our own on calls, and that’s not the case now. Things change, you are going to be in this career for several decades so I think it is really important to do things that you like doing. Whatever that is. Do you like research, do you like patient contact, do you like the science stuff (labs). Think about what gives you enjoyment, pleasure, what gives you reward, what do you really not like? Try and analyse that. You have to keep your options open to a certain extent.
- Do your exams, get your diplomas.
- Do not get too caught up in points. It can make you feel quite inadequate.
It is a marathon, not a sprint medicine.
- To do a marathon you have got to be fit, healthy and have the mental strength and drive to do it. It is definitely not a sprint. If I am interviewing a doctor now, I really do not care about their points. You want someone who is personable, has a good attitude, deals with patients well. We can train for skill and experience, its more an attitude.
You need to have knowledge, but, if you are not careful you will lose the joy of learning and medicine if it just becomes a to do list.
- Remember why you went into it. It is always going to be hard work, there is a lot to learn. There is more to life than medicine, and this brings in stuff too, the more you can experience and the wider your knowledge and your reading of other things, allows you to connect with people better and see patterns.
- Go out there, be enthusiastic, embrace the world as much as you can.