Anna Allan: Making an impact

It is a sign of the times that one of the best ways for information from outside of hospital to come to my attention is via my Facebook newsfeed. This is indeed true, with links to various newspaper articles plastered all over my homepage announcing the recent death of Joseph E Murray, a pioneer of transplant surgery and Nobel prize winner. Long fascinated by the Nobel prize, I have always thought it inspiring that they were originally founded to reward those who “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Reading about Murray, one cannot help but feel in awe. Not only did he perform the first successful kidney transplant, but in so doing he inspired countless others in the field, resulting in the huge advances in transplant surgery that we are able to take for granted today. A true testament to this impressive feat is the fact that the endeavours of his team in 1954 helped to propel specialty breakthroughs of such a magnitude that today a (basic) understanding of organ transplantation pervades the general populace and is considered matter of fact. Incredible that the work of one individual helped to achieve so much.

And yet, when I read the articles praising his work and honouring his life, I wonder how anyone, let alone a lowly junior doctor, can ever hope to emulate such a revolutionary discovery or positively impact the lives of so many?

I, like many before me, entered the medical profession in the hope of helping to ease the suffering of others: using the best of medical understanding to treat disease and improve quality of life. In essence, I wanted to achieve the lofty aims upon which Alfred Nobel founded his hallowed prize. Unfortunately it is surprisingly easy to lose sight of this when faced with seemingly impossible time constraints and an endless barrage of bureaucracy. Not exactly what I imagined or signed up for when entering medical school.
On days when this administrative drudgery is set to completely overwhelm, the ability to change someone’s life for the better can be a shining beacon of hope. Whether it’s explaining a diagnosis or facilitating a package of care, for me the interaction between patients, their relatives, and myself is often far and away the highlight of my day. Actively taking the time to explain a diagnosis to a patient and helping them to understand, even in the simplest of terms, not only gives an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, but can also have an incredibly positive impact on that individual. It is easy to overlook the significance of these little exchanges in the grand scheme of a working day, but these are the minutes that truly count. Why else are so many people attached to their family GPs—doctors who are now restricted to short, ten minute windows of interaction? These are the little victories that one can claim day-to-day.

Whilst not every doctor can be bestowed the international honour of being a Nobel prize winner, noted for all eternity in the history books for conferring great benefits to mankind, we are in a privileged position to do real good for those around us. And after all, a win is a win, whether it helps thousands of people or just a single individual. I for one will certainly be taking a leaf or twelve from Joseph E Murray—a true inspiration, and reminder that we can all make an impact.

Anna Allan recently qualified as a doctor. She graduated from Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge in June 2012. She began her foundation year rotation in the North Central Thames deanery.