International Women’s Day – Choose better health

As a professional woman with a large family living and working in Camden since the 1980’s I have often struggled to find a balance between caring for my family effectively and feeling able to fulfil my potential in my job.

You can have it all, but probably not all at the same time

After qualifying as a doctor, I worked as a pathologist in a London teaching hospital.  When I fell pregnant in 1983, working part-time was not something open to many women.  I had to decide early in pregnancy whether to carry on with my job and support was very limited.  I chose to stop and went on to have four children and did not work professionally for 9 years.  By then I was mentally and physically exhausted and felt I had lost my identity. 

In those days I had to work very hard to claw my way back into medicine, working part-time at a local hospice and retraining in palliative care.  With the help of supportive colleagues, male and female, over many years I obtained a senior position in palliative care research at UCL.  Much of this was enabled by principally working from home, always part-time, so that I could choose my own hours to fit in with my family responsibilities.

In recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that many of us will have to manage how much time we spend working from home or in the office.  For those in front line jobs, this option may seem like a luxury.  I am certainly aware that it would have been much harder for me to manage a clinical patient-facing workload than doing more flexible research. 

Needs of the family come first

We had our challenges, like every family, but my children grew up, and there are grandchildren now too.  In order to keep sane, I always felt I had to put the needs of the family first.  I have also learned that when your children challenge you the most, that is when they need you the most.

I have not had to face home-schooling and working from home as many women have done so nobly over this past year.  For most people, it is hard to find the peace and quiet needed to do either or both of these, and nerves will often fray.

Looking after your own health

Like many women, I have not always prioritised my own health.  But I have got better at this over the years.  I also feel that health care services in Camden have improved.  It is great that my GP practice actively seeks me out for cervical screening and for vaccinations – always flu, and this year the COVID-19 jab which I have been fortunate enough to receive recently as I am aged 64.  I have also benefitted from breast and bowel cancer screening, which I would encourage everyone to take up.  Screening programmes are in place because they are looking for common illnesses, so it is always worth our while to participate. Read more about the screening programmes offered by the NHS here.

I like the NHS App too, although I only downloaded it the other day.  I now feel really empowered to access my GP for appointments, see my test results and all my medical records.  How things have changed in recent times! If you haven’t downloaded the NHS app yet, I recommend you do it on your iPhone or Android.

Looking forward

Many women will have shouldered much of the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For those who have been unwell or who have lost people close to them, caring falls largely to women as I found with my own elderly father who died a few years ago.  Managing all forms of grief, the family budget, putting food on the table, home-schooling, making sure we notice when our children are ‘not right’ in some way and trying to help, holding down employment, and getting enough respite ourselves – it is not possible to do all these jobs as well as we would like, all of the time.  But we try.

Healthwatch Camden

Recently, in retirement, I have taken over as Chair of Healthwatch Camden.   It is a pleasure to serve our rich and diverse local community.  One of the keys to our success as a team is to make sure that we take the time to listen to all sectors of our population.  For me, the voices of our women are some of the most informed and powerful.  I look forward to learning more and more each day and guiding our team to use that knowledge for the benefit of all our residents.

Additional resources

Some of the organisations that support women in Camden are Henna Asian Women’s Centre, Women at the Well, West Hampstead Women’s Centre, Kosmos Centre, Hopscotch Asian Women’s Centre and South Sudan Women’s Skills Development

We recently held an online Q/A event about the Covid-19 vaccination. You may see the full recording and transcript on our website here.