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Helen Burdett: My Working Life as a Lead Paediatric Anaesthetist

Published on: 8 Jun 2023

My Working Life: Helen

Can you describe your work/what you do in 1 sentence? 

I make sensible, honest and pragmatic decisions in order to provide the safest anaesthetic for every patient for their best outcome.

 

What is your typical caseload?

My job is great with about 60% paediatrics and 40% adults, so really varied. One trauma list started with a 6-week old and ended with a 101-year old – the variety is great in a district general hospital and keeps you on your toes.

 

When did you decide on anaesthetics? 

At Bristol Children’s Hospital in the 90s – I was on a paediatric senior house officer rotation, and we had anaesthetists on the paediatric intensive care unit. In those days there were no resident registrars on site so if there was an arrest the anaesthetist would run up from the Bristol Royal Infirmary – a very long and steep hill! They were always so calm and collected and always seemed to know what to do, and I wanted to be like that. 

 

Why did you choose to specialise in paediatric anaesthesia?

I enjoy anaesthetics and working with children. Specialising in paediatric anaesthesia allows me to do both and make use of all that I’ve learnt over the years. Children ask very sensible questions and get straight to what is worrying them.

 

What do you enjoy most about your current role?

Knowing that I have a good team to work with and that the operations we do will make a huge difference to our patients’ lives. Also, speaking to families and spending 5-10 minutes with them to get them and their child on side, making them relaxed about what could be one of the most stressful days of their lives. I try and make procedures less stressful and fun – we use bubbles and magic wands to distract them and make them laugh. 

 

What are the main 3 factors that make you frustrated at work? 

Time wasting; asking for jobs to be done and they’re not, which delays proceedings; women being underestimated in the workplace.

 

Looking back, what did you appreciate about your training?

We were always on call with the same registrar and senior house officer so, as a house officer, you knew your team. The long hours we did also gave a sense of belonging to the team who were very supportive. The team structure was excellent for training – you knew who to call in the middle of the night and they knew your strengths and weaknesses.

 

What was your best career move? 

Doing my paediatric membership of the Royal College of Physicians. Having dual training means I have a much broader knowledge and parents find it reassuring that I know about their child’s condition. They relax when you know the underlying issues associated with it. Having membership also meant that I was shortlisted for the jobs I applied for and was then lucky enough to get the positions that I wanted. 

 

What qualities do you think you need to do your job well? 

Good communication skills, knowledge of medical conditions, expertise in changing the anaesthetic technique to suit each patient. It’s commonly said anaesthetists don’t need a good bedside manner – I think they need the best. In the first meeting there is so much to cover and explain in a stressful situation.

 

What 3 words would your colleagues use to describe you? 

Efficient, straightforward, sensible.

 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever got from a patient or work colleague? 

Take the time to listen.  

 

What was your first house job?

Frenchay Hospital (now closed) in the good old days when doctors’ dining rooms were used for making referrals to other specialties or asking a friend to review the electrocardiogram you weren’t too sure about. There was excellent support and teaching from your team, I remember their names to this day – Kit, Sekundar and Andy. I would love to see them now! 

 

If you could go back in time and give one piece of career advice to your younger self, what would it be? 

Ask more questions of those that inspired you.

 

What do you do to relax/de-stress? 

Bike riding, being with friends.

 

What do you hope will be your legacy to your profession and colleagues? 

That I’ve inspired junior doctors to join anaesthesia and that I’ve empowered junior female anaesthetists to achieve their full potential in life and career.

 

Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare – and why? 

Both – I enjoy my job when the anaesthetic doors close and you can get on with the job you’re trained to do, but also looking forward to sailing to unexplored places.

 

Do you have a morning routine – something you always start your working day doing? 

Tea.

 

Are you an extrovert or introvert and why? 

Probably an extrovert when I am sure of what is going on, and an introvert when out of my comfort zone.

 

If asked to give an intriguing fact at a work awayday, what would you say?

Bahasa was my first language because my family moved to Indonesia when I was three. I spoke pigeon English to my parents. When I travelled after graduating and worked as a doctor in Australia, I rediscovered I could speak Bahasa. 

I also designed and supervised the build of our house whilst on maternity leave, living in caravans on site through one of the coldest winters with a toddler and new baby. 

 

Who has been your biggest inspiration? 

My grandfather. When I was sent to the UK aged 9, my grandparents picked me up from East Midlands Airport (had flown from Indonesia) and took me home with my brother. They looked after us during exeat weekends and half terms. He didn’t have much to say, but whatever he did say was always well thought out and wise. My parents then moved to Hong Kong, so I spent long holidays abroad which was great, but had a secure home in the UK with my grandparents as well. 

 

What is your guiltiest pleasure? 
Candy crush.
 

Biography:

Helen Burdett is a consultant and lead paediatric anaesthetist at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in Kent. After studying at Bristol university medical school, where she met her closest friends, she pursued a career in anaesthesia, completing her consultant training in 2002 and taking up her first consultant post in 2003. On top of her consultant role, she has been the clinical director for Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust since January 2023. 

A keen educator, she taught on ATLS for nearly 20 years, was a College tutor for six years and has been an examiner for the final fellowship exams since 2019. She was formerly an expert advisor to the The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency on paediatric and opioid management (2013-19).

In 2019 she established the Women In Medicine International Network (WIMIN) – a forum for women in medicine to share their knowledge and access a safe space to discuss difficult topics affecting their profession with her “truly good friend Kate Stannard.” The network now enjoys summer and winter meetings. In addition, the network supports a charity in Ghana to educate girls and women, allowing young girls to stay in school and empowering women to make baskets in order to support their families.