Starry, Starry Night

I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity.

We said it together. Wrapped in caps and gowns and excitement, holding on to the sweet pain of relief for as long as we could, and yet filled up to our mortar boards with the best intentions and the purest of ignorance.

I will practise my profession with conscience and dignity.

We threw our caps into the air and promised to stay in touch, and we changed the title on our debit cards as though by doing so, it would also change us as people.

I will maintain the utmost respect for human life.

And we thought we knew what the words meant.

Yet, even now, even after walking a thousand patient-miles, I’m still not sure that I do.

I have sat with those that suffer, and I have prayed to a God I am no longer sure I believe in. I have prayed for an end to their torment; a silent devotion that they may be freed from the cancer that gorges on their flesh, or that the paper walls of their heart might finally be quiet and still.

And even as I prayed, I still felt as though I served humanity.

I still practised my profession with conscience and dignity.

Now I have learned from you that there are many shades of torment. I have learned that the world is filled with frameless heads on nameless walls, a shadowed army suffering an agony that can’t be seen or touched or measured. To share your head with whispered voices, to walk each day alongside fear and misery and self-loathing, to live your life with an unquiet mind, perhaps this is the greatest torment of all.

And who am I to be angry that you needed an end to that torment?

Who am I, the person that prayed by the bed of a cancer patient, who am I to decide whether your life was worth living? And if I judge you, yet continue to wave a banner in support of mental health, then I am serving nothing but my own hypocrisy.

Yet I am still angry with you. I am angry that you couldn’t be reached and I am angry at myself, because my reach wasn’t far enough.

And I am angry because you were alone.

No one should be alone.

Perhaps I am angriest of all, because I could see so much of myself in you. Or perhaps this is just a balm with which I choose to soothe myself.

In dusky, curtained light, I allow myself to wonder how it felt, your slow, obscene goodbye. Not clean and gentle and forgiving, but brutal and chaotic. And I will hide from my own thoughts, until I allow myself to acknowledge that you knew this.

I doubt very much that it was a starry, starry night.

But you can rest with a quiet mind, my friend.

And you will never be alone again, because I will always remember you.

And I will practise my profession with conscience and dignity.

And I will learn to paint my palette blue and grey.


  1. That’s lovely, hon. You are such a clear-sighted, giving person. It doesn’t matter whether you touched them or not. You were there and you tried. The fact that you care enough to try raises you to the level of the very good guys. x

  2. Oh Jo. Every time I read one of your blog posts I am moved and made to think. Despite all the sadness I smile because hundreds of people have a doctor who really gets it, and who will help them in many, many ways. X

  3. Here, take the hand of one who has a frameless head …. and know that you are doing it. What you swore, and that you are doing it with all your heart and soul. It’s appreciated. xxx

  4. Such empathy comes at a cost – but your patients can only benefit. Though you may never know it. For a doctor who pauses, reflects, cares as you do, stays in a patients thinking for years. The fact that someone cares can, in time, translate into a self-belief that one is worth caring about.

  5. Your writing is so intelligent, so perceptive and so utterly moving. I am in awe. The most beautiful thing I have read in an age… shivers from head to toe! Thank you!

  6. So much physical and mental suffering for so many people, and it falls to those in the medical profession to help ease it as much as possible. That’s what you do with your empathy, professionalism, and friendship. There’s art to what you do, and what you’ve said here. Lovely.

  7. You give me the motivation and hope that I need to be better at my job and love it again. You are such a wonderful doctor and we are so so lucky to have you

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