You taught me so much

“So thoroughly and long 

Have you now known me, 

So real in faith and strong 

Have I now shown me, 

That nothing needs disguise 

Further in any wise, 

Or asks or justifies 

A guarded tongue.”

Thomas Hardy, Between Us Now

There’s nothing like enforced down time to make you take stock and consider what’s important to you. Cancer does that to a person. I can’t say that I’m glad this happened to me, but I have to take heart from some of the more positive outcomes. Maybe I think too much, but lately I’ve been mulling over what is important to me in life and mentally charting the course I took to arrive where I am now. I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to relive my more formative years (especially adolescence!) but I do owe some of my passion for life to the teachers and mentors who grabbed my attention and set my imagination on fire.

Thank you Miss Dampier

I was an angst-ridden teenager and school wasn’t exactly my favourite place. My English teacher came to the rescue (she explained to me on one occasion that she is a “rescuer”) and thank God she did, as her help, compassion, reassurance and guidance enabled me to swim rather than sink. I often felt like the man in the Stevie Smith poem, Not Waving but Drowning, though I was never the waving type, so I think I might have just drowned quietly! Somehow I managed to get hold of poor Miss Dampier’s phone number and would call the unsuspecting woman late at night to pour out all my teenage angst into her very patient ear. Teachers are much maligned, but this remarkable woman did much more than just offer me succour when I needed it.

Thanks to Miss Dampier I delved into Thomas Hardy’s poetry, empathised with Mr Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times (didn’t you love writing those empathetic essays for GCSE English – in this one I was the remorseful Mr Gradgrind expressing his chagrin to his daughter with characteristic abandon!), learned Wilfred Owen’s poems off by heart, and became To Kill a Mockingbird’s number one fan. Jill Dampier and I are still in Christmas card contact and she periodically updates me with news of others who touched my life through school. One such person is Mrs Sherratt, my brilliant biology teacher, who taught me how to write Oxford Entrance Exam style essays in response to titles like “Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?”

The periodic table

The person to whom I owe my love of chemistry is another teacher, now a friend, whose enthusiasm for the subject and inspirational teaching style made me hang on her every word. Dr Warwick thought I was rather gifted too, as my mother remembers her gushing at a parents evening, “Marisa knows the answer even before I’ve asked the question!” I remember Dr Warwick chanting “electrolyse before our eyes!” and “dehydrate, it is your fate!” during demonstrations of such processes. Now, many people find inorganic chemistry rather inert, but I just loved it. So did Primo Levi (I do seem to keep mentioning him), another hero of mine.

Manic rats in Oxford

My medical career has been somewhat circuitous but I can’t say that I regret any of the odd turns it has taken over the years. From giving ecstasy to rats as a second year medical student (my fascination with pharmacology began then) to returning to Trevor Sharp’s lab in Oxford in-between junior doctor jobs to do a PhD (this time the drug of choice was amphetamine to create an animal model of mania), to old age psychiatry and then branching out into medical education more recently. I can’t stop learning and I want to pass on that knowledge to others. Having breast cancer has taught me to return to my anatomy text books and to perform Pubmed searches with terms such as “cutaneous innervation breast” and “tamoxifen mechanism of action”, which it would never have crossed my mind to do as an old age psychiatrist. I am also far more acutely aware of what it feels like to be a patient waiting for results, a diagnosis or treatment. I have also rediscovered my love of writing!

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