Q&A: Dr Gabriel Weston

Q+A with surgeon and author Dr Gabriel Weston 

DR GABRIEL WESTON is a part-time ear, nose and throat surgeon in London and a mother-of-two. Her first book, Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story, was published earlier this year and has been nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2009. Now 38, she became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2003, just three years after qualifying as a doctor. She admits to being ultra-competitive and says she chose surgery because of “the drama, the machismo, the fear”.

What inspired you to write such an honest book? Before going to medical school as a mature student, I did an MA in English Literature at Edinburgh University. I have always been a big reader, although I never had ambitions to write. A literary agent friend of mine persuaded me to write a few surgical stories and she sent these to several London publishers. I was very surprised at how warmly they were received. In terms of the book's honesty, I couldn't see the point in writing it any other way. There are plenty of heroic doctor stories out there already. I wanted to write one about the uncertainties one feels as a surgeon.

How did your fellow doctors react to Direct Red? I have been touched by how many doctors and nurses have contacted me to say that Direct Red reminded them of their own experiences and feelings. In particular, my colleagues in the ENT department at Frimley Park Hospital where I work have supported me enormously through the writing and publication of this book. I am sure there are plenty of doctors out there who may not feel as warmly towards me, but I haven’t heard from any of them!

What is the most important lesson you have learned since your time as a junior? Without any doubt, the most important lesson I have learned as a doctor is that it's always, always best to be honest. There is no shame in telling a patient you don’t know the answer to a question they've asked, or that you don’t know enough to make a diagnosis. And it's far better to tell your boss that you think you've done something wrong, rather than have him find out for himself. There have been no exceptions to this rule in my experience.

How challenging is it to balance the demands of raising a family with those of a busy surgical career? My view is not a popular one, but I think having a family and a career in surgery is really difficult. I know women who have managed to climb high in surgery by having very full-time help. And I see nothing wrong with this, but it wasn't for me. The way I manage is by having a surgical job now rather than a career. I'm a part-time staff grade with a tiny responsibility. I have given up my registrar number and the prospects that went with it so that I could spend more time at home. I'm happy with my choice, but it carried a big cost in terms of the kind of surgeon I have become.

How do you divide your time amongst medicine, writing and raising a family? Tuesday is for writing. Wednesday and Thursday, I'm at the hospital. Friday through til Tuesday I'm with the kids. My husband helps a lot, and we have a four-days-aweek nanny.

Do you have any new writing or TV or film projects in the pipeline? I have started writing my second book, a novel. I've also been taken on as one of the fiction reviewers for The Telegraph newspaper, and have recently sold the TV rights to Direct Red.

How different is it for a woman to progress in a surgical career compared to a man? I don’t think there's any difference, per se. The people who progress fastest in surgery are those who work hardest at it. I don’t think there is any prejudice against a woman going to the top in surgery if she is as good as her male counterpart. The sticky bit is how women square this with family demands. Perhaps, one day, more men will be prepared to stay at home with their children and let their wives fly in their careers. But I have my doubts about whether female surgeons will want to marry these kinds of men!

Jonathan Cape 2009; £16.99

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