Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Stoicism and hard graft.

Who was not charmed by the sight of Alistair Brownlee giving up his own chance of victory in the World Series Triathlon in Mexico to help his brother Jonny cross the finish line? Jonny hit the kind of athletic wall that would have put you or me into some form of terminal cataplexy. These are tough men - they wonderfully understated, stoical and talented Yorkshire men. They chose to daily inflict on themselves the kind of physical pain that would render me couch-bound for a week, all in the name of sporting excellence.

Jonny Brownlee chose the physical state he found himself in by continuing to push himself when his body was screaming at him to stop. Alistair put it rather more prosaically when he called him a 'flippin idiot' for not pacing it correctly.  Yet, this was an afterthought- his first reaction, instinct, if you prefer, was to help him finish; but it was not instinct that made Alistair gruffly shove his brother over the line ahead of him, in second place. He'd had at least 500m to think about it. That was a choice, and it was borne out of love, and sporting respect. He was rewarding his brother for the race he had run, and the effort he had given.

That brotherly shove encapsulated a great deal: it was a practical solution to the problem of negotiating a limp body over a finish line; it ensured his brother finished by himself (kind of) and ahead of him. It was also a payback for a finishing 500m that Alistair hadn't counted out: presumably he had held enough to get himself over the line but hadn't counted on having to do it for two. He was also making sure they weren't overtaken by the man behind them. It was practical, unfussy and unceremonious. I found it all rather tender. And inspiring. When Alistair Brownlee says that he would have done it for anyone, I believe him.


I have something of a soft spot for understated excellence. I am inspired by success through endeavour, and it often makes me rather emotional to see someone succeed on the back of hours of graft, pain and commitment. I outrageously interpolate unjustifiable conclusions about the type of person a sportsman or woman is from their performance. It's why the outing of Lance Armstrong was so bitter for me. Today, when the provenance of sporting performance is so murky, it is the Brownlees who help me keep my faith.


I want to think that they must have been terrible at school, such was the challenge of persuading them to sit still for long enough to learn something, but that might be my desperation to find a chink in these otherwise amazing athletes. These are not lime-lighters. Every interview with them seems to have the forebearance of someone under obligation. They were recently in an episode of Top Gear, but they seemed to use the challenge as a training exercise.

I suppose we find inspiration in different places. I find mine in sport, and in particular, I find it in sportsmen and women who practice, and train for the chance to win, but without the fear of failure.

I need that inspiration at the moment to counter-balance the clagging tribulations of being a doctor in the NHS right now. Today, it has been announced that the Consultants are to be expected to publish their private earnings (£0 for me - job done) which is one thing. Quite another is the manner of portrayal, as Nick Triggle on the BBC website reports that it is 'certainly not uncommon' for consultants to earn 'in excess of £500,000': this 'fact' can only be explained in 3 ways: it is either a loose representation of reality, a lie, or it is true -in which case my wife will probably tell me to pull my thumb out. Yet it taps into something important: many non-medical acquaintances of mine assume I work short hours for lots of money, with loads of lovely leisure opportunities at a golf course, which I drive to in an expensive car.

In itself, this is a small moment, but death by 1000 paper cuts appears to be looming, as the drip-drip of undermining reporting about doctors eventually makes you ask yourself whether you really are the earnest, hard-working person you try to be. I was bowled so far over by Theresa May suggesting that junior doctors were 'playing politics' that I did wonder whether I'd Rip van Winkled it and woken up in another world. The endless repetition of £10billion of extra investment in the NHS, with the highest number of doctors and nurses in the health services history, and the need for the NHS to be more efficient has been a prevalent, endlessly repeated riposte from the DoH at every marker of NHS crisis, syncophantically repeated by every news outlet that reports on it.

Yet every day, we doctors, nurses, therapists, managers and social workers go to work and know the realities of those pressures. We know that we are not so inefficient that savings will make up the shortfall. We know that we work flat out so much of the time that there is never any time to think about how to do things differently. And we know that no one is really listening, or think we are exaggerating.

Frustrating, isn't it.

So ask yourself this: what would the Brownlees do? Tapping into my habit of detailed character profiling from minimal robust psychological information, I have decided they would:


  1. Keep working as hard as ever, to do the best with what they have. 
  2. Not complain, but plough on
  3. Wait until someone asks them for help sorting the mess out
  4. When they do get asked, they would have a list of practical, sensible measures ready to implement.
So, from watching a brother help his hobbling brother finish a race, I have decided that I can finish this race by continuing to work on the things I do best (being a doctor) and spending time with my teams working on how we can continue to provide good care for our patients with what we have. We will be honest about what we can't do, and then just get on with it. Right now, no one wants to hear anything different, so we'll have to wait for someone that does.

If, in the meantime, you need cheering up, then perhaps you can watch the clip of Alistair and Jonny. Or perhaps you could watch this one, or this one, or even this one. 

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