Sarah Thornton: My Working Life

Published on: 8 Jun 2023

My Working Life: Sarah

What did you want to be when you were at school/growing up? 

Initially a train driver (aged 5), then an astronaut (aged 9), and finally a doctor (aged 14).


If you were to describe your career to someone outside of medicine, what positive aspects would you highlight?

I love the people I work with, the variety of the job and the way we all rise to the occasion when the shit hits the fan. Also the flexibility of hours in anaesthesia, which means I can be there for my family.

I could do the school run – I have three children, grown up now, aged 19, 22 and 24 – and still do a good job as a doctor. Also, no one is sad when the anaesthetist turns up at a critical incident – I love being that multifaceted as a clinician. 


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

The things that took days to organise during covid-19 pandemic that take months or years now – the bureaucracy gets in the way. When someone is a jobsworth and doesn’t see the bigger picture. When I’m prevented from giving the best possible care because it’s not “the way it’s normally done!”


What has been your biggest career disappointment or challenge and why, and how did you overcome it? 

I’m a glass half full person, every closed door is an opportunity for another to open, so nothing has been a disappointment. The biggest challenge has been moving from a regional role, where I was known and could change things quickly, to a national one, where the wheels move more slowly, but I’m working hard to prove myself and help with training matters wherever possible.


What was your best career move? 

Getting a consultant job in a department I love with a can-do and caring attitude, then getting involved in training the next generation – that is where my passion lies.


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

Handover, go to an arrest in ED, intubate and get a CT scan, organise a transfer, do a ward round, then try to squeeze in a hybrid college meeting while writing up the ward round notes. Repeat!


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

Enthusiasm and positivity have carried me a very long way. I have no special skills other than a desire to help and the willingness to think laterally.


What 3 words would your colleagues use to describe you? 

Happy, enthusiastic and a bit mad.


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

Every failure is a learning opportunity, taught me by the late John Aspbury, a former anaesthetist at Bolton who trained me. Look after others and they will look after you in return, from my dad – the legendary Chris Lea, who was a headmaster.


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

Lower your standards a little – we are too perfectionist and self-critical, as a specialty. And be a better parent – no one will notice if you don’t go to every audit meeting, but your kids will notice if you miss their Christmas play.


What do you do to relax/de-stress?

I foster guide dogs. I have had 13 so far, and I take them running with me. I try to run 5 km three times a week and I listen to sci-fi audiobooks when I do (still secretly want to be an astronaut!) I also love a role-playing video game!


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

A positive role model demonstrating a can-do attitude and a belief that they can do anything they choose to do. I have only got to where I am by saying yes, doing my best, and seeing where that takes me.


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

Both. I can’t wait but I’m not ready yet. I’ve more to do at the RCoA as I’ve only been there a year. I’m in my 50s but feel much younger. We have plans to travel the world with my sound engineer husband, visiting every F1 grand prix before our children procreate – and then it is back home to play with grandchildren!


If you could be invisible for a day what would you do? 

Go to Number 10 and listen in on health policy in the making, maybe tap Rishi on the shoulder a couple of times to freak him out!


If you were given £1m what would you spend it on? 

My kids and cancer research. As a breast cancer survivor, I am forever grateful I have been given longer to fulfil my dreams.


What do you usually wear to work? 

Love my customised scrubs with my full name on so people address me by my first name, which helps with patient safety, plus they have giant pockets to put all my stuff in!


What single change would you like to see made to the NHS? 

Give the clinicians more power they know what needs to be done – covid-19 demonstrated that perfectly.


Any career disappointments? 

Yes – but with a happy ending. After my house jobs and working in emergency care, I applied to a two-year rotation in the emergency department at North Manchester General Hospital. I didn’t get the job but the anaesthetist on the panel rang and offered me an ICU/neurosurgery job. That is where I got the ICU bug! 



Sarah Thornton is a consultant in anaesthesia and critical care at the Royal Bolton Hospital. After studying medicine at Leeds University, and completing her house jobs at St James's University Hospital, Leeds, and in Huddersfield, she initially pursued a career in emergency medicine, before a job in intensive care diverted her attention and she focused on anaesthesia from then on.

She completed her specialist training in 2000 and got a consultant post at the Royal Bolton Hospital. In 2002 she became a college tutor and later took up positions as training programme director and then as head of school for Manchester and Mersey, responsible for the training of over 500 trainees, before joining the council of the Royal College of Anaesthetists in March 2022. She is now co-chair of the training committee and deputy chair of the Education Training and Exams Board for the College.