Dr Punam Krishan: A doctor’s personal journey through racism in the NHS

My name doesn’t sound very Celtic. I don’t tend to pipe my patients in from the waiting room and I don’t prescribe haggis very often. My dark hair and tan, which I’ve not had to pay for, may confuse some but if they ever got as far as speaking to me, they’d realise I’m just a bonnie wee lass born in good old Glasgae, as proud a Scot as can be. I don’t know of any other existence.
Working in the health service is gruelling but deeply satisfying. Photograph: GettyWorking in the health service is gruelling but deeply satisfying. Photograph: Getty
Working in the health service is gruelling but deeply satisfying. Photograph: Getty

If you were to dig deeper, politely, you would find that my heritage is Indian and yes, rather stereotypically, I’ve grown up in my dad’s corner shop on curry and ginger (not the root kind!). I lived in a tenement flat with my extended family. I was fortunate to study at a Roman Catholic all-girls school where I was empowered to dream big by all those around me. I worked my hardest to change my life from the frontline serving customers in the shop with my parents as a kid to serving pizzas in Dominos to support myself through uni to eventually serving patients in the NHS frontline.

I’ve been a doctor for 12 years now and it’s been a rollercoaster of sorts. There are times where you work gruelling hours under immense pressures and curse yourself every day for inflicting such a hellish lifestyle upon yourself. What gets you back in the next day and the day after that is the immense satisfaction you feel when you help someone get better.

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When someone is vulnerable, unwell or lost and you help make their world a better place again, nothing compares to that sense of elation and achievement. Armed and ready before every shift – physically, mentally and emotionally – we begin, with no idea what to expect when that door opens. Excitingly nerve-wracking.

The NHS, from my experience, is more than just a service. It is a safe community, a tribe, a home to those of us who dedicate our lives choosing to work for it. The collective team is made up of doctors, nurses, allied healthcare professionals and countless other employees who keep the service afloat. These individuals come from all over the world, in all shapes and sizes and from diversely fascinating cultures, faiths and backgrounds. Some have disabilities, some have health problems and some are having personal issues that they are battling outside of the workplace.

So as you can imagine, quietly fighting on the frontlines, the last thing we want to face is discrimination, abuse or derogatory behaviour from our patients. Nobody deserves this, least of all the people who are there to help.

I’ve had my fair share of exposure to racism over the years, sometimes overt and sometimes flippant remarks, but all have hit a place that hurts. Racism exists across and within all cultures and this is even harder to fathom.

Having grown up as a second-generation Indian, it becomes easy to detect undertones of racism. It makes you feel horribly uncomfortable and is hard to challenge.

When my receptionist, 
the backbone of our practice, called out an individual who said they didn’t want an “Asian doctor” and that I didn’t “look Scottish” by saying “What do Scottish people look like?”, it made me feel incredibly proud.

To have a Scottish “native” stand shoulder to shoulder and see you as their own, is something I wish my grandad had witnessed. In the 1970s, establishing life here wasn’t easy for him.

I identify as a Scottish Indian. My wee boy, aged five, identifies only as a Scot even though I try to convince him of his Indian roots. This is always met with entertaining resistance. He’ll find his own identity, I’m sure, so long as the world allows him space to do so.

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Incidentally, my friendly trolls have hounded my account asking me about my clan colours to prove my Scottishness. It has got me wondering how I go about doing this?

• Dr Punam Krishan is a GP and is on Twitter @drpunamkrishan