Shafalica Bhan-Kotwal: on the disruption caused by the volcano

I am writing this from the lounge of the international airport at New Delhi, India. Today is our third consecutive day at the airport and the seventh day of being stranded away from our home in Essex. We were supposed to be flying back last Sunday that is until the volcano erupted in faraway Iceland throwing our travel plans into chaos.

For the first couple of days all kinds of rumours started doing the rounds. That the disruption would last weeks, if not months, and even if the airports did open it would be weeks before we could hope to return home due to the backlog of passengers. Mercifully, the airports opened after five days but by then thousands of people like me were left stranded post Easter break. As soon as the airport opened I called my airline who suggested that we make our way to the airport to “take our chances,” never mind the 300 kms round trip with 2 young children and sweltering heat of 42 degrees Celsius. Once we were at the airport our chances of going anywhere looked extremely slim if not nonexistent. If like me you think that the NHS doesn’t cope well with any crisis, take heart, the airline industry seems to be faring hundred times worse. Nobody seems to know what is going on. There is chaos and confusion all around. There are distressed families with small children, visitors whose visas have expired, and angry people all around me. The standard line I have heard at least 50 times since yesterday is, “but this volcano is not our fault, what do you expect us to do ?” Pleading, threatening, cajoling, nothing seems to be working. I have even tried the “I am a doctor I need to go back,” and, “I have got very young children” cards, but no luck.

The holiday started off pretty normally. Maybe it is just me, but I find the week prior to a long holiday somewhat stressful. It feels like a race against time to dictate all the letters and sign them off, fax all the prescriptions to GPs, handover some of the more unwell patients to the community team, and generally make sure that nothing urgent is left outstanding for my covering colleague. This time things were slightly more difficult for me as there was the looming end of year ARCP, my Msc exam a few days after my return, and the consultant job advertisements had just started to trickle in. As such I was somewhat pleased we were only going for two weeks this time rather than the customary three weeks visit to see the family. On landing at Delhi all this was quickly forgotten as we started spending time with family and friends. Days passed quickly and it was time to go back home when disaster struck in the form of a distant volcano. Thank goodness for internet and e-mails. I promptly informed all my colleagues of my delayed arrival. Obviously they know the situation is bad and have been understanding but their work has increased manifold. The medical staffing had to arrange emergency cover for my on calls. Clinics had to be cancelled, which is always a problem as trust waiting list targets have to be met. Home visits had to be rescheduled or cancelled. The last e-mail I had from my secretary suggested that one of my colleagues from another team has been asked to see some of the urgent clinic patients and do some urgent domiciliary assessments. It seems some of my colleagues have agreed to swap on calls with me with the proviso that I do their on calls on return. My consultant has cancelled her pre booked holiday next month as there is no guarantee of when I will be back. I also read in the news yesterday that these additional days off would either have to be taken as unpaid leave or annual leave. Hopefully we will be consulted on return, but one never knows. What about my colleagues, who are covering my work, will be they compensated? I have also had some interesting mails from friends back home envying me for my good fortune in getting “stranded” while visiting family. In normal circumstances that would be true, but believe me spending days on end either phoning the airline, or at the airport is not much fun at all. The only people who seem to be enjoying it at present are my two children. I can see the airline manager walking in my direction now and I hope he has some good news for us this time. In the meantime I am keeping my fingers crossed…

Shafalica Bhan-Kotwal is a higher specialist trainee (ST6) in old age psychiatry based at St Margaret’s hospital in Epping, part of the North Essex foundation NHS trust. She completed her basic medical training in India and then trained as a psychiatrist in the United Kingdom.