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My Secret Other Life


This particular post I’ve been worrying over for days. Weeks probably. Because I have a whole other life back in Australia that I never really write about on this blog – the life I left behind when I moved to China – and I really don’t know if it could possibly be of interest to anyone. But I told Maryanne, fellow Shanghai writer and blogger of A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai, that I wanted to know about her other life in her hometown – Vancouver Island – even though she didn’t feel inspired to write about it when she recently visited. It’s sometimes easier to write about the unfamiliar than the familiar. 
I never had any intention of taking such a prolonged break from my old life, and my job, when I came to live in Shanghai but that’s just how it happened. Six months in Shanghai became twelve, then eighteen, then two years, and there’s still no immediate prospect of coming back permanently to Australia. And yet really important parts of my old life, like my family and friends, and my career, got left behind there. 

I had a really great job as a kids ER doctor in Brisbane. For the medically challenged, this means I looked after the many and varied emergencies befalling any small person under the age of sixteen. Swallowed pieces of Lego. Severe vomiting bugs. Broken arms. Meningitis. Beads up noses. Drownings. School refusal. Car accidents. From the mundane, to the funny, to the tragic. I still remember the kid who swallowed his mother’s gallstones, recently removed from her body and sitting in a jar by her bed, who taught me that children are capable of swallowing anything, no matter how disgusting. And the little girl who drowned in a dam after chasing after the family dog through a hole in the fence, and her family’s unimaginable grief. And the mother who waited for four hours to be reassured by me that yes, indeed, her two year-old son’s penis would grow with him and he wouldn’t have a weeny one all his life.

The work was challenging in every way – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually – and taught me many things about life and about myself. But in Shanghai, I can’t do the work I trained for, largely because of I don’t speak Chinese to a high enough standard, and Pediatric Emergency Medicine doesn’t yet exist as a medical specialty in China, which severely limits my working options. But as six months stretched into two years of not working, I began to worry that my old skills might be getting rusty, and that combining a trip home with a working holiday might be a good idea. Luckily for me my old boss thought so too.

When I arrived home three weeks ago I hit the ground running – literally. I was back at work, in my old job, within 24 hours of arriving, with no real time to think about whether or not it was a good idea. I’d dug my paediatric stethoscope out of a box, where it was tangled up with five pairs of earphones that come free with mobile phones, and packed it in my suitcase along with some work clothes, and hoped for the best. Would I have forgotten how to set a fracture? Or put a drip in a newborn baby? Or to explain how to use an Epipen to the terrified parents of a child suffering their first peanut anaphylaxis?  

As it turns out, I hadn’t forgotten any of those things and I slipped back into that old self like a second skin. It felt very comfortable, and I enjoyed the reassurance of knowing that this was a job I could do well, and that I loved working with kids every day. The reaction from my old colleaugues was worth bottling – I felt so loved and welcomed I wanted to keep that feeling in store for cold dark days in China when I wonder what on earth I’m doing there. And yet. It was exhausting, the work, and not just because I’m unused to it. I never used to think that working in the ER was stressful or particularly tiring, despite the emotionally charged nature of the place, the changing shifts, and the constant pressure to avoid error.  But it is exhausting, and I remember now how I was constantly, wearingly tired, and it is stressful. Looking after very sick children and their frightened families is very stressful.  

I do love medicine, and it is a vocation, a career that never goes away, even when you do. It’s like being a nun, or a teacher.  Giving it up would be like cutting off an arm. But living away from medicine has brought me so much creative pleasure and opened so many possibilities to me that I can’t begin to tell you how exciting, and scary, that is.

So after three weeks, I’ve made some decisions. I’m not ready to give up on doctoring, despite those downsides. And I’m not ready to give up on writing and photography, even though trying to make a go of these newly found skills terrifies me. I feel constantly like an uncertain intern again, lacking in confidence and constantly taking wrong turns and stepping on toes. It’s risky, but I think there must be some way to combine both of these into a life that keeps me happy and busy. Doctoring pays well and Emergency Medicine lends itself brilliantly to part-time work. Writing and taking pictures pays poorly, but I love both, and they allow me to have a creative side to my life that medicine doesn’t fulfill. I hope, with fingers crossed, that I can combine both of these very different lives into one whole. Wish me luck!

  • Sally

    I, for one, really enjoyed hearing about your other life. And I can't wait to hear more about how you plan to combine the two lives together. Best of luck!

  • christa @ mental foodie

    How funny, I work a hospital/clinic here in Minnesota, though not as a doctor or a provider, but I do work closely with them and the administrator/ops mgr on various projects to improve quality or safety or processes. I also have a part time photography business doing wedding and portrait, but have been taking a break since last year due to my workload (unfortunately can't do my day job part time). So I understand you wish to do both – good luck!

    I enjoy reading medical memoir – and had read a fun one about ER: Something for the Pain (One Doctor's Account of Life and Death in the ER) by Paul Austin. There were definitely some touching stories. I haven't worked with the ER docs yet but definitely appreciate what they do and it's totally different culture than the other areas!

  • Fiona

    Christa I'm totally amazed….how on earth do you hold down a full-time job, do part-time photography (even if not right now) AND read a gazillion books and then write about them?

    I'll check out that book by Paul Austin, all ER docs have at some point read and identified with The House of God by Samuel Shem (1978), a classic detailing the life of an intern in a big US hospital.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Fiona, I enjoyed to read about your new life just as I always did about your adventures in China! And I completely understand that you miss medicine. I am a neurologist (don't know if I already told you?) and in China – so far – I am not working. And even though I know very well that a typical working day means running and deciding forgetting about everything else (like food, water, going to the toilet, calling the husband…)I also know the good feelings you get batteling all this, the special moments you get, like the patient you fought for making it – and I miss it, I do. Yet…there is also other things in life that medecine can't give you, I completely agree!
    Anyway, please do keep us posted about both of your lives! Cheers, Michaela

  • Fiona

    It's always exciting to discover something new about your readers! Michaela I never knew you're a neurologist…I imagine you'd be very in demand in China…but then that's what people said to me and it turns out I can't work in Shanghai at all.

    Your description of a typical busy day where you finally get to the bathroom for a toilet break just before going home really rings true – and many days without a food break too!

  • Connie Lou

    Thank you for this post Fiona. I'm thinking of relocating for a year and although I won't be leaving the corporate world (I did that a couple of years ago), I will be leaving those I am close to. I guess when you know it is right you just put one foot in front of the other and go forward. I believe a door is going to open for you to incorporate your profession and your art….can't wait for that post! Take care.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting to read about the other side of the coin! Life at my current age seems like a constant barrage of difficult or complex decisions ultimately leading towards some balance and satisfaction. I suppose this is always the case, isn't it? Anyways, just promise not to stop blogging and best of luck with combining both worlds!

  • Fiona

    To Connie Lou – these decisions are always difficult – thanks for your lovely words! It is really hard to leave behind people you care for, I am lucky to have my own family right here with me, altough we've left our extended family and all our friends in Australia. Thank goodness for the internet!

    To Anon – 'balance and satisfaction'. I like the sound of that. Still aiming to get there someday…..

  • Sharon

    Fiona we loved having you back at work with us! You are such an amazing person, our department is much greater with your presence!