Conversations with friends: Dr Hafsah

Dr Hafsah is a lifesaver, a dancer, a baker and an artist. And I’m so excited to talk to her today.

Before becoming intimately acquainted with hospitals, I was very scared of all things medical. Driving past a hospital would make me shudder. The very notion of tests or needles would send me into a cold sweat. Doctors and nurses, who are nobly trying to make everyone better, seemed like scary, implement-wielding figures in my mind.

One thing that helped me with my medical phobia was becoming friends with Dr Hafsah. She was so kind and sympathetic when I got ill, and it made me associate doctors with a friendly face. And a quick scope of her Instagram reminded me that doctors are real people, fighting the same issues as the rest of us. She often posts about mental health, her love of dancing and delicious food snaps.

What inspired you to get into medicine? Did you always want to be a doctor?

I’ve wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. Lots of my relatives love reminding me I used to play with toy stethoscopes from a young age!

I think my main inspiration for wanting to go into medicine was my dad. He is a Type 1 diabetic whose kidneys unfortunately failed as a result. After he underwent a kidney transplant, he ended up in ITU on a ventilator due to complications. Fortunately he is well now and I am so thankful for those healthcare professionals who helped save his life. At the same time, I was inspired to follow in their footsteps and make a positive difference to someone’s life. I also love that medicine is a vocation and an interplay between art and science. 

Medicine is a vocation and an interplay between art and science

When did you start training, and for how long have you been a doctor?

I started medical school in 2012 and graduated in 2018. I have been working as a doctor for 2 years (!). 

What was the most difficult thing about your training?

Medical school was not easy for me. I came from a state school in south London and I really suffered with imposter syndrome. I felt like I didn’t belong at my university. Like most university students, it took me a few years to find a study method that worked for me. And like most, I found the learning curve very steep. 

Medical students are known to be at high risk for anxiety and depression and I did have a period of time where my mental health suffered. Fortunately, my university were really supportive and I had an amazing student counsellor for most of my time at university. I was also lucky to access CBT through the NHS. 

I’m currently approaching the end of a training programme far from home. I have found it difficult to live alone when I lived with my family for my entire degree. However, I am still grateful and it has shown me life outside London and taught me independence. 

Does being a doctor live up to your goals and expectations?

Generally speaking, yes. I did a module at the end of medical school where I essentially worked as a junior doctor under close supervision. I feel like medical school prepares you for the theory behind being a doctor but it was my F1 year (first year after medical school) when I truly started learning the practicalities of being a doctor. 

Your Instagram handle is @aspiringOBGYN, what made you so interested in this area?

I think it stems from my own experience as a patient. I was diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) at 13, so I understand how debilitating some chronic gynaecological conditions can be. When I started medical school, I did a summer school in O&G and fell in love with the speciality and felt ‘at home’ in it. 

I think what mainly appeals to me is how broad it is. I can choose to mainly specialise in medical issues in pregnancy, or be a specialist in scanning unborn babies and congenital abnormalities or be a gynaecological surgeon – the possibilities are endless! 

What’s the most challenging thing about being a doctor?

I would say the responsibility – decisions you make for patients can have massive repercussions for them. With the way UK medical training works, you can be a newly qualified doctor at the age of 23 and this is a lot to take on mentally for someone that young.

I think the other thing I find quite challenging is maintaining a good work/life balance as we do a lot of shift work. I’m often too tired to do anything when I come off shift. I struggle to still do the things I enjoy or see my friends and family often.  

You can be a newly qualified doctor at the age of 23 and this is a lot to take on mentally for someone that young

Do you think it’s harder to be a female doctor?

Yes! I am also very petite and look young (blessed!), so people often assume I’m too young to be a doctor. I think being a female doctor poses a lot of challenges. A lot of us worry about balancing our careers with wanting a family and some may ‘settle’ for specialties that offer a better work/life balance. For example, surgical specialties are notorious for being difficult for work/life balance, meaning some may leave training part way or struggle to progress if they go part-time. 

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?

For me, the most rewarding thing is seeing someone really critically unwell improve dramatically because of the treatment you started for them. 

Also, I had an elderly patient pass away a few months ago who was very unwell. I was the doctor who broke the news to the family that their relative was critically unwell and continued to support them and give them updates as much as I could until she inevitably passed. The family were extremely thankful for my support and I am so grateful to have been an ounce of positivity for them during this dark time. 

I am so grateful to have been an ounce of positivity for them during this dark time

I can’t imagine what it’s been like at hospital during the pandemic. What’s it like being on the frontline?

Thank you! That’s really sweet. I mainly worked in Orthopaedics and General Surgery during the peak and so wasn’t really working in coronavirus areas of the hospital. Things were changing almost by the hour in the hospital as new information came in which was super hard to adapt to. I was also worried about becoming critically unwell, being a BAME doctor. 

I’ve had about four changes to my work schedule since COVID-19 started, which has been difficult to deal with. I am currently doing more on calls and night shifts which is starting to take a toll. 

The hardest thing of all has been not being able to see my family for over 4 months. My dad falls into the ‘high risk’ category so even though I can now technically go home, I am terrified I’ll pass on the virus to him or my other family members.  

However, going through this difficult time has created a sense of camaraderie amongst my fellow F2s, which has been nice! 

I love seeing your ‘non doctor’ life on Instagram too. Tell me a bit about your hobbies:

I think it is important for healthcare professionals to have a life outside of the hospital as a form of escapism and to develop healthy coping mechanisms. 

Before my medical training, I was part of a Bollywood dance troupe. I am now training in an Indian classical dance form called Bharatanatyam, which I started around 2 years ago. I had training every Saturday which I always attended unless I was working. It’s nice to see how much I’ve grown as dancer since I’ve made the effort to go back. 

I also bake a lot – I’m known for bringing in cake for the team and have recently started to enjoy cooking since we have been in lockdown. 

Something I haven’t really shared on my Instagram is my love of painting. I did a GCSE in Art (which you couldn’t pay me to do again) and I particularly enjoy experimenting with watercolour and ink – I love how contrasting the two mediums are. 

I used to be part of a Bollywood dance troupe … and I’m known for bringing in cake for the team.

When I told my friends about this interview, they wondered if you had any tips on successfully getting diagnosed for conditions like endometriosis or PCOS, which can take a long time?

On average, it takes 7.5 years to get a diagnosis of a condition like endometriosis. I’ve seen how disabling this condition is in my patients. The reason for this is because a lot of the symptoms are fairly non-specific and can mimic other conditions such as PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) and IBS (inflammatory bowel disease). 

I think more needs to be done to raise awareness of these conditions. Not just among the general public but also for GPs and other healthcare professionals so women don’t feel afraid to approach us for help and get referred to a gynaecologist/endometriosis specialist centres. 

If you’re worried, the first step is to please see your GP! I would make a list of your symptoms so you can vocalise your concerns better. There are various organisations such as Endometriosis UK and Verity who can help provide support whilst you are being investigated. 

On average, it takes 7.5 years to get a diagnosis of a condition like endometriosis

Once the pandemic is over, what would you like to do next – both in your personal and professional life?

I am just approaching the end of my Foundation Training. This is a 2-year postgraduate programme between medical school and specialty training. Nowadays more and more doctors are taking an ‘F3’ year. This is essentially a gap year before starting training in your specialty of choice. For O&G, specialty training is 7 years, so this is my only opportunity for a break.

From August, I will be working as a clinical fellow (out of training) doctor in O&G and also picking up shifts where required. I would like to use this time to build on my portfolio to (hopefully) start O&G training next August. However, I would also like to take the time to work on personal development and my mental health.  

Thank you so much, Dr Hafsa! It’s been fascinating to learn more about being a doctor – a vocation that truly takes so much time and energy. I’m reminded to be extra thankful to all the health professionals out there (instead of being resentful when they’re poking me in the butt).

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