The well-travelled GP author

GP and writer Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth discusses her latest, most personal and painful book.

Originally a zoologist, Dr Wilson-Howarth has worked as a doctor in Britain and in the Himalayas (Photograph: Jason Heath Lancy)
Originally a zoologist, Dr Wilson-Howarth has worked as a doctor in Britain and in the Himalayas (Photograph: Jason Heath Lancy)

You’re very involved in travel health. What do you do?

I lived overseas for about 11 years, mostly in Asia. The last long trip was six years in Nepal. I spent two years in Indonesia and I’ve worked in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and done expeditions to Peru and Madagascar.

I’m a GP partner and medical director of an immunisation clinic in Cambridge and Ipswich, and I do a lot of
teaching on international health and travel health. 

How did you start writing?

I was in a remote place in Sri Lanka, there was a war on and I couldn’t work. I was in the thick of it – some days I would see 200 patients, some days about four. I was bored and started writing about an expedition to Madagascar, which I got published.

I then wrote a book called Bugs, Bites and Bowels, which is now in its fifth edition, and after that I was commissioned to write two more travel health books.

I wrote the chapter of the Yellow Book on travelling with children and travelling when pregnant, and I’ve written for Wanderlust magazine since its first issue in 1993.<

Your new book is a personal story – what is it about?

The book (A Glimpse of Eternal Snows) is a memoir about living in Nepal. The centre of the story is my middle son, David, who was born in 1993 with multiple congenital abnormalities. We were living in Nepal during my pregnancy but I came back to East Anglia for his birth.

There were all sorts of things that medical staff wanted to do to him and we eventually decided we didn’t want him to have surgery and major interventions – it wasn’t going to improve his quality of life. We felt a lot was being done because it could be, rather than it being useful.

So we took him home to Nepal, and the book is about living as an expat in a very remote place, on an island in the middle of the biggest tributary of the Ganges, with a child who is basically under a death sentence.

The book is about us getting our life together and him blooming and putting on weight despite the fact that the medics in the UK had given him a terrible prognosis.

We went trekking together 12 times and I believe he enjoyed his short life. He died in 1996. I hope it’s an uplifting book about the way we look at disability and mortality.
 

Why did you write the book?

I started writing it thinking it would be quite funny to describe cultural differences and being accidentally rude in Nepal. I showed some early drafts to a literary agent and she said the book had no soul and asked what I was hiding, which was very perceptive. I had actually edited David out of my public life, because I didn’t want to share him with anyone.

After I came back from Nepal and returned to general practice I realised how badly we Brits mourn and grieve, and I wanted to try to write a book that would help people to heal. So I put David into the mix and it’s ended up being the book I’m proudest of.

It’s taken a long time to write (10 years) partly because it physically hurt writing about David. But I was also furious with the way my medical colleagues treated us and it took a long while to get over that. I didn’t want to write a bitter, twisted book – I wanted it to be positive.
 

As a trained zoologist, why did you move into medicine?

I organised an expedition to Nepal in 1976 to record wildlife in Himalayan caves and ended up patching up locals in a remote valley. I saw how powerful health education could be and I wanted to do something to help to prevent disease in the developing world.

I went to work on parasite control and realised I couldn’t do what I wanted without a medical qualification, so I went to medical school. I qualified at 31 and married a civil engineer, and we lived overseas for many years.

I’ve been a GP partner since 2004 – I got to the age of 50 and thought I should have a proper job. I am a gossip, really, and I’m interested in the patients and in people. I really love the fact that you can see four patients in the surgery with
acute tonsillitis and not one of them deals with it in the same way. I never cease to be amazed at the variety of people’s responses.

GP READER OFFER

GP readers can receive a 30% discount on Dr Wilson-Howarth’s book, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, by quoting the code DRJANE30 when ordering from Bradt Travel Guides

 

Offer valid until 31 January 2013, postage free to UK addresses

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