Gerry Farrell: Laughter is the best medicine for Adam

Medic turned comedian Adam Kay lifts the lid on life as a junior doctor in his new book This is Going to Hurt. Picture: Hugo Burnand
Medic turned comedian Adam Kay lifts the lid on life as a junior doctor in his new book This is Going to Hurt. Picture: Hugo Burnand
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Between the date of your birth and the date of your death there’s a little dash. That’s your life. If you or your family have ever been in hospital, you’ll know that the people who do most to stretch that dash out a little longer are the doctors and nurses who work in our precious but beleaguered NHS.

Adam Kay, junior doctor turned comedy writer (and Edinburgh Fringe performer), has just lifted the lid on what it’s like to work ridiculous hours performing daily miracles in an NHS hospital.

Don’t believe Tory Health Minister Jeremy Hunt’s rubbish about junior doctors “asking for too much money”. As a junior doctor, Kay earned £6.60 an hour, significantly less than a shift supervisor at McDonald’s. In 2016 and 2017, Kay read from his own secret medical diaries in a highly-acclaimed comedy show with sell-out runs here in the Capital.

Now he’s written the book of the show, This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries Of A Junior Doctor. It’s already climbed to Number 20 in the Amazon bestseller charts and it goes on general sale tomorrow. As the blurb on the back says, “It’s everything you wanted to know about being a junior doctor, and more than a few things you really didn’t.”

It’s so horrifyingly funny you’ll feel bad you laughed – but laugh you will and probably cry too. I caught up with Kay to get the story behind the stories.

Why did you write this book?

When the junior doctors were coming under fire from our dear leaders two years ago, they were struggling to get their side of the story across. The Government had a loud voice to broadcast their misinformation to the media, and the doctors weren’t getting heard (probably because they were at work all day). I dug out my diaries from my medical days to show the public what it means to be a junior doctor day-to-day: the realities of the job and the toll it takes on your life at home and at work. So the next time junior doctors get it tight from a Tory minister, the odd person who’s read this book might remember the other side of the story.

How did you find enough time to keep a diary during that exhausting stage in your life?

All doctors have to keep a log of their practice, numbers of procedures performed, reflective learning when things go badly etc – in my case, I just went up to my hospital on-call room and wrote down all weird sh*t that happened to me. Like a medical Anne Frank (only with worse accommodation).

Were you telling yourself “This is going to make good material some day”?

There were dozens of times when I knew I had a good story, for instance when a patient attended with a toilet brush inserted in him (bristles first), or when another patient asked if one morning-after pill would be enough because she’d slept with three guys the night before . . . Indeed I made huge numbers of friends nauseous with my stories over the years. But at no point did I think, “this is going to be a book”.

Has anything in your own life been as hard as the time you put in as a junior doctor?

The hardest stuff about being a junior isn’t the hours – it’s the impact on your personal life, it’s the breaking bad news, the death, the emotional exoskeleton you develop so you can actually cope with these things. Nothing since I’ve left has even come close.

What has been Jeremy Hunt’s grossest, least forgivable error in his relentless campaign to demonise junior joctors?

The very worst thing the morally-bankrupt Weasel King did wasn’t actually imposing unfair contracts on junior doctors, it was more subtle. It was lying that doctors were striking because they were greedy for more money. They were striking because the only thing that motivates doctors is the best interests of their patients – and because working conditions and consequently patient safety were being jeopardised by his measures. He knew all that and he lied. To my mind, that’s unforgiveable.

If you could map out a day for Jeremy Hunt to spend in an NHS hospital would you have him emptying bedpans or what?

I would dearly love Jeremy Hunt to know the reality of what not just doctors, but every kind of healthcare professional – nurses, midwives, paramedics, physios and auxiliary staff actually do. I defy any human being (himself included) to see how far they go beyond their contracted hours and beyond what could be reasonably expected of them – and then suggest they’re being greedy. I’d have him choose ten members of staff at random and spend an hour each with them – shadowing their work. He’d be absolutely humbled by them, he’d see the damage he’s doing and hopefully he’d rediscover his humanity and have his Scrooge vs Ghosts moment.

You lasted six years on the wards. What kept you going?

I loved my job, and I loved my colleagues, but mostly, corny as it sounds, I loved helping patients – it’s an absolute privilege to be allowed to play such a big part in people’s lives where I worked, with mums and babies on the labour wards. If I hadn’t had such a bad experience (SPOILER ALERT – but hey, you watched Titanic knowing how that ended) I’d have absolutely stayed, but there’s nothing to say I wouldn’t have had another such experience a month, a year, or five years later.

Has anything changed for the better in the NHS since you left in 2010 or are things getting worse?

When I jacked in my job, I was a glitch in the system – no-one quit in those days. Today I can’t look at my Facebook feed without seeing a former colleague announcing their move to Canada or Australia, or to some pharmaceutical company. The health service is being starved of money and is now at breaking point, with huge gaps in every rota, and staff having to work harder than ever to plug the holes. There’s never been a worse time to be a doctor, or by extension a patient.

Right-wing journalists and politicians keep reassuring us there’s no truth in the allegations that the NHS is being stealthily privatised. Are they pulling the wool over our eyes?

They’re not pulling the wool over our eyes: they’re straight-up lying. The only possible explanation for the willful dismantling of the NHS by those supposed to be protecting it is because they have an ulterior motive. Re-read this answer in five years’ time and let’s see which of the NHS’s murderers are in well-paid executive roles within private healthcare companies.

Are you coming to Edinburgh to promote the book?

I actually launched the book in Waterstones on Princes Street at the end of the Fringe festival – I’ve been coming up every August for a decade – it’s where I learned how to perform comedy so it made sense to be where the book was born. Oh, and I’ll be signing copies in Glasgow on Friday, October 6 at Waterstone’s in Sauchiehall St from 6.45pm.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is published by Picador on Sept 7th, priced £16.99