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Mother care

I've asked to see a female GP. It's not because I doubt the competence of the male partners, but because I am presenting with what I presume is lactational mastitis.

And while I don’t really care whether the doctor examining me is male or female, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the female doctor with the new baby knows a little bit more about the complications of breastfeeding than a male doctor.

And it’s not barn door I-need-antibiotics-now-type mastitis, but possible early mastitis, and I want the opinion of someone who’s probably had a bit of personal experience of breastfeeding. 

‘I learned nothing about breastfeeding in medical school,’ I remark, as I explain the reason for my consultation.

‘Nor did I, or about children, until I had my own,’ she confides.

And this makes me start thinking that there are aspects of my life, my relationships and my experience that influence subconsciously the way I practise medicine.

I’ve been the worried relative, the anxious parent and the bereaved mother-to-be, crying my eyes out in the early pregnancy unit at the sight of the empty gestation sac on a pixelated screen.

As a casualty doctor, I always seemed to be the only female on my shift, and ended up seeing every vaginal bleed. I cringe at the thought of my naive younger self explaining the possible outcomes in a very cold, detached matter of fact way. No doubt, the women I saw must have realised that miscarriage was a possibility.

Does having children make you a better doctor? The consultant paediatrician on a recent course I went on didn’t think so, and said: ‘Just because I’ve had four of them, doesn’t mean I know all about children.’

But even if having children doesn’t make you a good paediatrician, experience of them has undoubtedly influenced my clinical practice.

It’s a combination of subtle influences. Sometimes, it’s obvious. For example, my experience of handling my babies and toddlers has made me confident when examining other people’s children. I am familiar with the workings of baby grows, and able to investigate and change any nappy as required with the dexterity of a seasoned pro. I know all the songs from the pre-school TV programmes. I’m able to rapidly develop a rapport. I can empathise with the parents, their concern for their children and their loss of perspective. I am unfazed by tears.

Personal experience of ill health is clearly not an essential aspect of a doctor’s training, just as having children can’t be a prerequisite for a paediatrician. Being a parent has doubled the length of my specialist training, but I also think that my experiences with them have in so many ways enhanced it.

Zara Ford is a specialty trainee

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