Tracey: With great excitement, I present to you the first post in my series — by authors, readers, publishers, bookshop owners, bloggers (the list goes on!) — about what life-changes they made at the age of 50. Author Anne Pettigrew’s going to start us off with tales from her life. Welcome, Anne.
Anne: Thank you. I’ve never thought, while grass-hoppering round careers, about ‘milestones.’ But Tracey has hit a chord: 50 was a milestone. But first the prologue…
The directions we take are usually governed by the ideas and influence of those around us- with a big dollop of serendipity. I’m no different. A sickly child, at 10 I decided to be a doctor. At 17 I enthusiastically started medicine at Glasgow. At 22 my resolution wavered (I fell in madly in love). But at 24, I qualified. Scary. And married. Lovely. My plan was hospital consultant — but with no prospect of part-time work should I produce a sprog — I veered off into General Practice. Rewarding. By 30 I was a mum and happy part-time GP. By 40 I’d had sprog 2 and developed a wild notion that TV production would be great: the BBC didn’t think so.
I was diverted by medical politics and wrote my first letter to a newspaper (The Herald) ranting about Thatcher’s NHS changes. The editor printed it as a feature and asked me to become a regular journalist for them. Other papers and medical magazines commissioned me. It was a great outlet for gripes and grumbles and passing on lessons learned. My main interests were complementary medicine (I became a Homeopath) plus preventive and women’s health, but by 50: I was despondent.
Problem was, I was seeing babies being born to babies I had delivered decades earlier coming into households still smoking, drinking, taking no exercise and dying prematurely despite our best efforts. I was also ground down by the excess computer data-collecting prescribed by the Government: too little time for patients: too much time wasted logging excess statistics no one ever looked at or used. You couldn’t ignore it or money to fund your patient services would be cut. I needed re-energised, so joined a Health Board Health Promotion Committee. They moved meetings to a Monday morning, our busiest time so no front-line staff could attend. Frustrating. By now my son was finishing a Masters in Biophysics, my daughter off to Sixth Form College the other side of Scotland and my husband re-energised in a new Pharmaceutical Society post, developing pharmacy services… What should I do?
Then I had an epiphany.
It was a Post-grad prospectus. My wonderful son had a bundle of these for PhD applications. Glass of Sauvignon in hand (essential for all good decision-making in my view) I found an unknown subject: Medical Anthropology. Totally fascinating. A light bulb moment. Perhaps studying how the beliefs of the healers and the sick over past centuries and across the globe might illuminate how behaviours formed – and how they might be modified? But, hmm. It was a Masters, hard. And at the University of Oxford — no chance.
I applied anyway. My son wrote my personal statement. I didn’t recognise myself, but they must have seen something. I was interviewed, accepted and before I knew it, I was on sabbatical, a locum in place. I was rooming in a house attached to Wolfson College. By quirk of fate, my son also went that year to Oxford for his PhD. At first keeping out of his way, I discovered he thought it hilarious his mum was also studying there. Weird but enjoyable being a student with your son.
The year with Rhodes Scholars and classmates from around the world was life changing. I was forced to stand back and look candidly at my profession. Or, as my tutor put it, be ‘de-constructed’! I found some answers to my problem of how to change unhealthy behaviour. The greatest improvements in infant mortality and health have been achieved by educating all girls. Kerala and Costa Rica are prime examples. It was a sobering thought to realise the best thing I’d ever done for patients was not prescribing medicine, but persuading girls back into college. My book royalties will benefit the truly anthropological and community-sensitive work of PlanUK. My publisher Ringwood is non-profit.
— a cheesy grin after graduating MSc Medical Anthropology from University of Oxford!
Graduation was emotional — in Latin and complexly ceremonial, with much bowing and nodding — but also a fun family affair. I returned to Scotland, made my sabbatical report to the Scottish Office and returned happily to practice until I retired.
But the sabbatical effect didn’t end there. I decided to write a novel about women doctors (there aren’t any except pioneers and pathologists) so signed up for Creative Writing classes at the University of Glasgow. There the undergrads were fascinated by our student experiences in the 60s: how on earth did we manage without the pill (not available on the NHS to the unmarried) without mobile phones and with no internet for research? The book would be sixties. And Oxford had made me think about doctors’ power.
I published my novel, Not The Life Imagined, in January 2019, aged 68. It was runner up in the Scottish Association of Writers Constable Silver Stag Award 2018.
— Not the Life Imagined
— So my frustration at 50 led to an Oxford Masters, an obsession with promoting girls’ agency (ending child marriage and FGM while improving access to education) and a novel looking dispassionately at medicine 50 years ago when discrimination was the norm and ‘MeToo’ unthinkable —
We need our doctors to be competent, compassionate, trustworthy and practice sexual propriety. My first novel, Not The Life Imagined, deals with sex: narrator Beth exposes a rogue surgeon. The second will have her uncovering an untrustworthy Shipman character. Both are darkly humorous and entertaining — as well as thought-provoking. Medics make disastrous mistakes in love and life just like ordinary mortals! No mystique should surround them…
The year out also led to life-long friendships. A German classmate with a degree in Tibetan medicine took me on her PhD trip to visit Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim. With her, we’ve also sponsored several Darjeeling hills girls. Two have graduated in Hotel and Tourism and one is finishing dentistry. All from a glass of sauvignon… What next? I will be 70 next year but as yet am unsure which direction to shoot off in. Serendipity may well provide the answer…
Tracey: Thank you so much for being the first to tell us ‘What I did at 50’, Anne. I’ve really enjoyed your story!
Here’s the Book blurb for NOT THE LIFE IMAGINED. Beth Slater is shocked at how few female medical students there are and that some people, such as Conor Towmey, think they shouldn’t be there at all. Devastated by a close friend’s suicide, Beth uncovers a revealing diary and vows to find the person responsible for her death. In Not the Life Imagined, retired medic, Anne Pettigrew, has written a tale of ambition and prejudice laced with sharp observations, irony and powerful perceptions that provide a humorous and compelling insight into the complex dynamics of the NHS fifty years ago.
Struggling with the pressure of exams while supporting friends though disasters, Beth charts the students’ changing, often stormy, relationships over two decades in a contemporary backdrop of Free Love, the Ibrox Football Disaster, the emergence of HIV and DNA forensics. In time, indiscretions surface with dire consequences for some.
A darkly humorous, thought-provoking story of Scottish medical students in the sixties, a time of changing social and sexual mores. None of the teenagers starting at Glasgow University in 1967 live the life they imagine.
Dr Anne Pettigrew is a retired GP and writer. You can connect with her in the following ways: