Ahmed Kazmi: A GP’s experience of the Grenfell Tower fire

I am a GP working in the west London area. My clinic is less than 800 metres from Grenfell Tower and several of our patients were residents there.

Wednesday was a tragic day for many and a very atypical day in our surgery. We spent it trying to compile a list of our patients who had been dispossessed. We made comfort calls to those affected (especially the vulnerable ones), offered walk-in appointments for those who found themselves without medication, and tried to offer some comfort. It is difficult though; what do you say to someone who has just lost their home and every possession they own? “I am so sorry for what has happened to you, here is your insulin prescription.”

I went down to help at the rescue centres. Walking past the tower was eerie. It looked like something from an apocalypse film. There were workers in white biohazard suits, police officers, and exhausted firefighters. The building was still smoking. I was fearful of what state the rescue centres would be in. I took a big breath and entered.

I struggle to describe what I saw without getting emotional. I didn’t see or feel any despair or terror. The overwhelming feeling was of love, unity, and solidarity. Every corner of St Clements Church and Rugby Portobello Trust was taken over by agencies there to help: a makeshift housing office, a lost relatives bureau, the Red Cross, and a doctor and nurse station to name a few. There were emergency service workers circulating the floor. I have never seen so many priests in one place (which is saying something considering I went to a church school!)—even the bishop was there.

The most beautiful observation for me was the conduct of the local residents. People arrived one after the other with food, clothes, and toiletries. People quickly sorted the items and displayed them and helped the affected pack what supplies they needed into bags. A group of young black Muslim boys, who were fasting themselves, walked around with jumbo pizzas offering everyone slices. A group of ladies arrived to offer face painting for the children.

As a doctor I felt slightly redundant. The centres were very well staffed as so many doctors and nurses had volunteered. I sat down on the floor and played with some children. I didn’t use my stethoscope those hours I was at the centre, but I still feel I was a doctor. I think that sometimes empathy and witnessing someone’s grief are as important a part of our role as procedures or prescribing.

It was striking how all of the usual prejudices or divisions, which so frequently surface, were all suspended. People from all walks of life were empathetic and loving to each other. For a period at least people stopped being black, white, Muslim etc and were just “human.” If this type of unity is possible in times of tragedy, I think it is realistic to aim for it all the time.

Note: Ahmed Kazmi’s next comedy shows will raise funds for those affected by the fire; for tickets go to www.doctorahmed.net and to donate please go to www.justgiving.com/doctorahmed

Ahmed Kazmi is a GP in west London, originally from Warwickshire. He has worked in the UK and Australia and his main special interests are dermatology and mental health. He is also a stand-up comedian. Twitter: @drahmedkazmi

Competing interests: None declared.

  • oldartstudent

    Thank you.

  • oldartstudent

    Thqank you.

  • Alex Cook

    I’m glad this blog post has been featured in the Guardian’s live blog this morning, because it highlights there has been a large body of support on the ground in the aftermath of this tragic disaster.

    I still feel disappointment by the lack of leadership, visibility and initial resource provided between the council and government, because among other reasons this means the story of the great work done by heros such as yourself can get lost.

    Voluntary organisations such as the British Red Cross, who I understand have a team of 30+ volunteers working with people there, deserve much more exposure in events like these so that they continue to receive the public support needed to help them to do what they do so brilliantly both now and in the future.

    Here’s hoping out of the deverststion, hope can be rebuilt. Love to all.


  • Maria Ashot

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and setting an example for others. You are a scientist who is in a Caring profession. Unfortunately, Britain suffers under the weight of too many incompetent politicians and bureaucrats who lack any real connection to the human beings they serve — effectively, their employers. It is heartbreaking to see someone of advanced age who ought to know better pay more attention to her coiffure and her make-up than to any heart-to-heart interaction with people in pain in their hour of greatest need. Fortunately, the Queen does have that tactfulness, empathy and understanding. We all need to make sure everyone growing up learns how to respond to the bereaved in times of crisis. And you, in particular, as members of the medical profession, need to lobby urgently for upgraded fire safety regulations in place of the current lackadaisical, hope-nothing-happens approach. It is possible to provide even sturdy folding chain ladders for high floor occupancy. It is possible to provide parachutes. It is possible to create fire-resistant inflatable exit slides of the kind used on airplanes for evacuation. All sorts of interventions are possible, and necessary — but the first requirement is to actually care for your fellow human beings, and their welfare.

  • James Wickham

    Empathy is the best attribute a GP can ever have

  • Walter Schwarz

    Ahmed Kazmi’s account is very moving, it made me feel I was there.

  • Prof. Azeem Majeed

    Thank you for your very poignant article.