Jonathan Fitzsimon interviews doctors who have incorporated interesting, adventurous and unusual aspects into their clinical careers.
Mr Jonathan Webb is a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon who specialises in knee surgery and Sports Medicine. He successfully combined his medical training with a first class rugby career, playing for Bristol and Bath Rugby Clubs. He played 33 times for England, winning two Five Nations Grand Slams and reaching the Rugby World Cup Final in 1991.
I represented the South West and played in the RFU ‘Probables’ Vs ‘Possibles’ trial match. I was in the ‘Possibles’ team and we trounced the ‘Probables’ which posed a bit of a dilemma for the England selectors. Not long after that I was on the bench for England and found myself selected for the 1987 World Cup Squad.
Jonathan Fitzsimon: Tell me about your route into Medical School.
Jonathan Webb: My dad was a professor in paediatrics, my mum a consultant psychiatrist, my three older brothers are all doctors and my sister, who is a wine merchant, married a doctor. We’re a pretty medical family! Having said that, I was more interested in engineering as a teenager and seeing my brother facing the commitments of a 1:2 rota on the special care baby unit as a junior doctor, rather put me off the idea of medicine. It was only really as I was taking my A levels that I finally decided that I am more interested in people than machines and so I decided on a career in medicine.
JF: Did you think straight away that you would be an orthopaedic surgeon?
JW: Not at all. It was only towards the end of medical school that I felt more inclined towards surgery but I enjoyed a mix of house jobs and found interesting aspects to all of the jobs I had.
JF: Was rugby a dominant part of your life throughout all of this?
JW: Not really. We are a sporting, competitive family and played all sorts of sports. Whether it was cricket or badminton I was just determined to try and avoid getting hammered by my older brothers. I was a late developer in rugby and it was only towards the end of sixth form that I played at a representative level, for Northumberland.
JF: How did your rugby career progress alongside your medical school studies?
JW: It all worked well. I had weekends free as a student. I played for Bristol University for the first few years and it was only in my 4th year that I made the huge physical step up to playing for Bristol Rugby Club. I moved up through the ranks quickly with some lucky breaks for me and some unfortunate injuries to other players. I represented the South West and played in the RFU ‘Probables’ Vs ‘Possibles’ trial match. I was in the ‘Possibles’ team and we trounced the ‘Probables’ which posed a bit of a dilemma for the England selectors. Not long after that I was on the bench for England and found myself selected for the 1987 World Cup Squad.
JF: So as your medical school final exams loomed, you got selected to play for England in the World Cup!
JW: It was pretty incredible but I nearly didn’t go. It seems crazy to think it now but I was so worried about missing my finals that I was on the verge of telling the RFU that I would have to turn them down.
I was on a ward round. It was an old fashioned ward round with Professor Reed, a legend in the hospital [...] I was summoned to the front as “Prof Reed wants to speak to you”. I was desperately trying to think what I had done wrong when he congratulated me on my selection to the England squad.
JF: How did you get around that?
JW: I was on a ward round. It was an old fashioned ward round with Professor Reed, a legend in the hospital. He had a long chain of registrars, house officers and me at the back with a couple more medical students. I was summoned to the front as “Prof Reed wants to speak to you”. I was desperately trying to think what I had done wrong when he congratulated me on my selection to the England squad. I explained that due to the clash with my finals, I probably wouldn’t be able to go. He just looked at me and said, “I’ll sort that”. The next week, I spent two days hoping on and off my bike going around different hospitals across Bristol with various consultants staging individual final exams for me. Prof Reed had spoken to someone in every specialty. It was a crazy two days but it meant that I flew out to the World Cup.
JF: Tell me about the response from patients and colleagues when you got back.
JW: There were a few awkward moments on ward rounds when patients just wanted to talk to me about rugby. There were a couple of consultants who were less than impressed about being upstaged by their house officer!
JF: So at this point you are a house officer and an England rugby player. How did you balance the two?
JW: I’m a firm believer that having another passion alongside medicine is a fantastic way to cope with the pressures of the job. Many doctors are talented in other fields. Doing something else wholeheartedly can be a form of relaxation and is actually more refreshing than doing nothing in your time off. Having said that, I was really spinning plates at this point. I was lucky to have a fantastic colleague who was always willing to swap shifts and be flexible about our weekend rota. I was always able to get Saturdays off for match days, even if I did then have to work most Sundays.
JF: Did your medical career suffer at all?
JW: Well, I did fail my first attempt at my surgical membership exams. I had a viva the day after returning from Dublin after we had stuffed the Irish. I’d like to claim it was all due to that, but I think I would probably have failed anyway. By 1989 I decided to take a six month break from rugby to concentrate on passing exams. After that, my form dipped and I was struggling to get to training. I wasn’t selected for the England team and then I was dropped from the Bristol team. In 1990 I had essentially given up rugby.
JF: What changed your mind?
JW: My wife Amanda said that if I didn’t give rugby one more shot then I would find myself in my mid thirties, regretting giving it up too early. I was fortunate to be able to join Bath Rugby Club. I was now a Senior House Officer with an incredibly understanding, supportive boss and I was able to get my rugby career back on track. I was selected for England again, in time for the 1991 World Cup.
JF: How did your medical colleagues respond to this news?
JW: I applied for six weeks unpaid leave. My boss asked me how much the RFU would pay me during this time. I explained that, as an amateur, all I got was a few pounds a day to cover phone calls and the like. He was shocked. He organised a whip round from the consultants to help cover my costs, which was incredibly generous of them.
JF: During the 1991 World Cup, you experienced the highs of reaching the final and the lows of losing to Australia. What happened after this?
JW: I carried on playing. My best season as a player was in 1992. Bath won the League and the Cup and England won the Five Nations Grand Slam. By 1993 I had been accepted on the Oxford surgical training programme as a registrar. I was now living in Bristol, playing in Bath, working in Swindon and regularly attending teaching in Oxford. I also had two children by this point. The step up to being a registrar meant that this couldn’t continue. I was not selected for the 1993 British Lions tour, so after we beat Scotland in the Five Nations I called it a day on my rugby career.
The best doctors have a balance to their lives and I have always been glad to have something else alongside medicine. I also think that doctors should try and make the most of the flexibility that the profession now has.
JF: Do you have any advice to the current crop of junior doctors?
JW: Medicine has the advantage of a phenomenal range of opportunities. It is such a massive field that you just need to be open to the possibilities that present themselves to you. Don’t close your mind to a specialty just because of one bad experience. Try and look for positives in every job. The best doctors have a balance to their lives and I have always been glad to have something else alongside medicine. I also think that doctors should try and make the most of the flexibility that the profession now has.
Finally, try and see though the politics and remember that our core business is looking after people. Try and always keep true to why you became a doctor in the first place.