‘We all felt like dispensable bodies in scrubs’: Interview with novelist-turned-A&E doctor Roopa Farooki – Published in “i”

 

Novelist Roopa Farooki stopped writing full time to become an NHS doctor, but felt compelled to keep a pandemic diary, she tells Etan Smallman

 

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You’re working 13-hour shifts, considering yourself lucky if your break lasts long enough to heat up your lunch. Your hands are cracked and dry. You’re battling a killer virus without even donning full scrubs because there aren’t any trousers in your size.

One patient vomits on you while you’re wearing nothing more than the flimsy apron you pulled off a roll – the type your mother-in-law disapprovingly dismisses as a “plastic pinny”. Later, someone’s blood splatters across the rash you’ve been picking at on your arm.

Meanwhile, you notice patients’ relatives stealing the hand sanitiser there to keep their loved one safe. And strangers on Twitter are telling you to quit your job, because you’re jeopardising the safety of the four children waiting for you at home.

Welcome to what life was like for a junior doctor when Covid-19 began to tear its way through Britain’s hospitals.

Dr Roopa Farooki – a successful six-time novelist before she retrained in medicine in her late thirties – chronicled experiences like these, on the frontlines of A&E in south-east England, in a diary during the first 40 days of the crisis and is now sharing them in her book Everything is True. Even after all we’ve heard and read about what staff in the NHS have faced during the pandemic, it still has the power to shock.

What made those 40 days even harder for Farooki was family heartache. In February 2020, her sister, Kiron, died of breast cancer. But there would be little time to mourn; within weeks, she would be plunged into our national tragedy.

“It all unfolded so quickly, it just sort of fell like a flood around us, didn’t it?” says Farooki, on a video call from her living room. “Then my grief was just a drop in the ocean of everyone’s communal grief. So many of my patients were dying. It felt at that point selfish to have this individual grief for someone who’d actually managed to pass away when at least we could all be there.”

Farooki returned home from her shifts shattered and frightened. After putting her children, then aged between nine and 13, to bed, she found herself lying on the floor, as her raw, fragmented reflections poured out.

She typed “night by night”, throwing what felt “like emotional nausea on to the page”. She could have written much more, but after 40 days – the original length of quarantine, derived from quarante in French, quaranta in Italian – she was “wrung out, like an old dish cloth”.

The diary was never meant for publication. “I felt it was important to keep some kind of record just for me,” Farooki tells i. She trusted that she was writing it “to some future self, who would look back at this with some kind of wry disbelief that we’d ever let things get that bad”. But the situation now still “feels a bit like Groundhog Day. That injury, that wound, has never really healed because we never really got better.”

The endorsements on the book’s cover all refer to the anger in its pages. Looking back, Farooki is surprised by her uncharacteristic swearing. “I really did think it was possible that I might die in those first 40 days,” she says in mitigation. “You don’t really care about diplomacy. I was angry then, I think I am still quite angry now. The whole point was, if you were going through something terrible, the only value from it really is that you learn not to do it again.”

While the staff of 10 Downing Street were making the most of the lovely weather and bringing their own booze to parties, Farooki was cancelling the memorial event for her sister. But she reserves her fury for the plight of her patients, particularly those in the early days “who were saying goodbye via their doctor’s kind of grubby phone held up. They had those last words, those last really important moments, stolen from them. And, meanwhile, the people who were meant to be protecting us were having fun in their back gardens.”

On day 15 of lockdown, as Boris Johnson waged his own battle in intensive care, Farooki wrote: “You don’t wish the Prime Minister any harm, you certainly don’t wish him dead, but as everyone says, you are unsure the feeling is mutual.”

She says now: “I don’t think anyone really feels that political leaders care about frontline workers. We all felt like dispensable bodies in scrubs. I make a joke about Blackadder at some point – it’s definitely like going out over the trenches.

“I’m not a lawyer, but at the time, it felt criminal. It really felt like it was some kind of criminal negligence. If it was any other corporation, which had allowed this to happen to the staff, there would be consequences.

“The politicians had access to information we didn’t. And they should have known the trajectory from where we were, compared to where Italy was – that locking down just those two weeks earlier might have made an extraordinary difference.”

Farooki, who was born in Pakistan and was brought to the UK by her family when she was seven months old, was also struck from the start by how many of the NHS staff slain by Covid had names like hers – “funny, foreign names, is what the elderly white patients say”, she writes.

She says: “At my hospital, like many hospitals, the clinician and nurse demographic is far more diverse than the population we serve. So we are far more likely to be Bame, which means that we were far more likely to actually confront the illness and get very unwell from it.

“We were quite at risk from our patients. I think many people are aware of that.”

Farooki obsessed over her “working-mother guilt” and the pandemic put a strain on her marriage. Looking back, she accepts “it must have seemed absolutely insane” to her husband that she appeared to be putting her job before her family.

Recently, her daughter asked why she didn’t continue working purely a writer, so she could enjoy “staying at home with us, going to cafés and nice long baths”. What would her sister, to whom her new book is dedicated, have made of it?

“She would have thought it was selfish and kind of vainglorious to be doing this job. Like, you know: ‘Who are you trying to impress, really? No one is impressed if you go and give your life for your patients.'” But Farooki is satisfied with her decision. “Every time I reassure someone or diagnose someone, and get them on the way to being a little bit better, I feel that I’ve done something right.”

She continues to work her 13-hour shifts but hopes her colleagues – most of whom are unaware she is even a writer – don’t find out about the book.

Way back on day seven of lockdown, the author was doubting herself. She recalled having been humbled by the discovery that none of the doctors on her ward – “too busy working to write books” – had even heard of the Booker Prize, and said: “On medical social media, the doctors who keep a newspaper column are vilified as media-hungry opportunists. Reporting on your experiences is considered bad taste.”

But, in the end, she ploughed on, deciding: “Maybe, today, tonight, in these early hours, sitting in the dark of your hallway, you’re the scribe for your tribe.”

“Every individual experience matters,” she concluded, “a silver thread of your own truth wound about it.”

  • ‘Everything is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic’ by Roopa Farooki is out now (£14.99, Bloomsbury)

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