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Throwing those curtains wide open

The recent WiMIN conference might have taken place remotely, but it provided much needed respite and allowed us to travel into each other’s universes for a brief period of time

“This time last year” (as many of us have been saying recently) I was getting ready to pack our car with excited children, a supportive husband and boxes of goodies that would fill the conference packs to be handed out at the third annual WiMIN conference in Belfast. The conference would take place on Saturday, and we had planned out our family excursions for Sunday – Titanic museum, Botanic Gardens, Peace Wall. I was flat out with preparations for my first “international” event – flights were booked for speakers from all over the UK and I had a team on the ground in Belfast searching for thoughtful local gifts to show our appreciation to people taking these long journeys.

About two weeks before the big day, however, the frenetic energy within me began to slow down. I sensed that all of these meticulous preparations may have been in vain. The first few Covid cases started trickling in (ominously enough, the first case on the island was a women who had travelled through Dublin and onwards to Belfast). I hastily looked into event insurance (lesson learned for the next time), but was told it would not cover cancellation due to a pandemic (you could almost see the pencil scratches where they had frantically added this clause to all of their policies).

I knew that I would have to make a decision sooner rather than later, to clarify the situation for the speakers and attendees. In a way it was easier that it was an event for doctors. The optics of gathering a bunch of vital frontline clinicians in one room would not have been good and even worse if they had all toddled back to hospitals in all four corners of the country, merrily incubating the little CoV-2 fecker in their nasal passages. So the plug was pulled and the Belfast dream was postponed to September. August arrived. CoV-2 still around. The fecker. Postponed to March.

February arrived. CoV-2 was still all over the country, continent, globe. Feck this anyway.

My speakers had been extraordinarily patient with my sporadic and vague emails about flight postponements, and cancellations, and putative alternative dates. In the end, like every single other thing that is happening right now, we all stayed in our own homes and turned on our computers at a given time, spoke our words into a tiny unseen microphone, glanced occasionally at a little blinking camera light and hoped that everyone out there wasn’t screaming “You’re on mute!” at us.

And yet, despite the miserable constraints that are suffocating us all right now, we spent the next three hours throwing our metaphorical curtains wide open and travelling into other people’s universes. Our first speakers broke that didactic Zoom barrier by engaging in a conversation with each other on screen where they shared some of the experiences they have had as medical trainees who wear the hijab. How they have been excluded from surgical theatres because no one thought about ensuring they had access to the correct surgical caps. How they have been excluded from mealtimes because of misguided beliefs about their religion. How they have been offered sub-standard breastfeeding facilities because, well, most likely, because of their race.

Our minds were opened to the concept of neurodiversity being just as vital to the fabric of our society as biodiversity is to the natural world. We came to appreciate the potential dangers of undiagnosed autism in physicians, with significant increases in mental distress and suicidality. We learned about similar health inequities for doctors, and patients, who do not fit the traditional heterosexual norms.

We were heartened by the progress that can be made when people who would formerly have felt excluded have the opportunity to meet with others in similar circumstances. We learned about the support networks that are available to migrant women, and how increased clinician awareness of traumatic experiences, such as female genital mutilation, can allow these women to heal physically and emotionally.

We considered the huge impacts of the climate crisis on global health, and discovered a myriad of changes we can make in our personal and professional lives to mitigate against it. We were encouraged to think about where our money goes – do we really want our savings to be propping up the arms or tobacco industries? And we were prompted to consider how all of us working within the all-consuming space that is medicine need external support, and were reminded to be grateful for our right-hand-men/women.

For a few hours we were able to free ourselves from our small, Covid-compressed lives and see the bigger picture.

A recording of the third annual Women in Medicine in Ireland Network (WiMIN) conference is now available for viewing on the Medcafe platform

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