Taking part in a public protest and going on a hunger-strike is not something I enjoy doing, so why am I doing it?
I have a very simple philosophy – that if you are privileged, you have a responsibility to use your privileges to make the world a better place; the greater your privileges, the greater the responsibility. I have been lucky in the life I have lived, and I am lucky to have the knowledge, experience, skills, resources, determination and support to do some good in the world. A number of my colleagues have in recent years died in their 50s, so I sometimes regard myself as living ‘surplus years’. At my stage in life, I feel I should be giving rather than getting. There is a nice quote reportedly originating from the famous American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place. I feel that also applies to knowledge and experience that one is fortunate to have – how you give it away can be a challenge. I myself have already tried to do this in a number of ways, such as writing books to pass on my knowledge, writing patients booklets to help them cope better, writing clinical guidelines for junior staff, giving my book royalties to healthcare charities in India, and so on. Perhaps in a sense by this action I am also giving away part of my reputation and dignity, but I am prepared to make that sacrifice. However, in this situation, where there are miscarriages of justice in the NHS, and where there is harm to patient care and to the well-being of staff, I feel a moral and ethical obligation to use my knowledge, skills, experience and resources to bring about real and meaningful improvements. There were reported to be around 1000 avoidable deaths in the Mid Staffordshire Hospital scandal, and helping to prevent just one of those in the future makes efforts like mine worthwhile.
Many people who work in the NHS are not in the position to take a stand for a number of reasons, not least of which are the huge costs involved when you go down the legal route; some have been so traumatised by their suspension or dismissal that they have lost the will to fight their case; some may be unwilling or unable to take the risks of going ‘public’; or, if they are still working, they may fear that they will get into trouble or lose their job if they speak out.
I realise that I myself am taking a risk in what I am doing – I have to think of the effects on my wife and children, I have to think of the effects of a hunger-strike on my health, I have to accept that some people may ridicule me as being a ‘crackpot’ or that I am doing this as a ‘publicity gimmick’ or that ‘this just shows you are a difficult person’…. it is interesting that when Gandhi went on hunger-strikes he faced similar forms of derision (as did the person who inspired Gandhi, Terence MacSwiney, the Mayor of Cork who went on hunger-strike to death in 1920). It is unusual for academics or professionals to take the plunge and get involved publicly in controversial issues, but there have been exceptions – while Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT is probably the best example, a number of Nobel Laureates, such as Albert Einstein, did get involved in issues of public concern in the later stages of their lives. As long as I follow my conscience and key Gandhian principles such as truth, compassion and self-sacrifice, I am not concerned about what others might say. I recall Gandhi’s famous quotation – First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.
This is a journey into the unknown for me…although I have practised fasting over the past few months in preparation for this occasion, I have not done it for a full five days. However, I am just as concerned about getting soaked in the rain than any ill effects on my internal organs!
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