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27 January 2021

Rachel Clarke Q&A: “I’m afraid I specialise in death“

The palliative care doctor on dealing with death, NHS heroes and falling in love. 

By New Statesman

Rachel Clarke was born in Oxford in 1972 and started her career as a broadcast journalist. At the age of 29 she retrained as a medic, and is now a palliative care doctor.

What’s your earliest memory?

The heat of a dusty street in Malta – and setting off to explore it by myself aged three, much to my parents’ panic.

Who are your heroes?

“Hero” is a loaded term for NHS staff. During the pandemic’s first wave, we were clapped uproariously from No 10 Downing Street. Yet just before Christmas, Matt Hancock sneaked out a letter delaying the promised pay rise for nurses. Perhaps he thinks applause can pay their bills?

What book last changed your thinking?

Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful depiction of the death of Shakespeare’s son from plague. With Covid-19 all around us, it made me clutch my children tight and wonder at the sheer ferocity with which we love and grieve.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nye Bevan. Imagine a politician today having the vision, charisma, humanity and resolve to set up a National Health Service.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’m afraid I specialise in death: what it looks and sounds like, its visceral reality. Dying is my day job. At the end, the vast majority of my hospice patients die with comfort and dignity. This doesn’t mean that dying is easy. But so often people’s fears of unimaginable suffering are far from the truth, which is that dying is surprisingly gentle and peaceful.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I choose now, please, in the Outer Hebrides. The coast of Harris, specifically, sharing the sea with gannets and otters.

What TV show could you not live without?

I rarely watch TV, but December’s Strictly Come Dancing final was an uplifting triumph of communal experience over a year of terrible estrangements.

Who would paint your portrait?

My son, Finn, who at the age of three informed me I was not as beautiful as a princess, but as beautiful as a courgette.             

What’s your theme tune?

When junior doctors went on strike against Jeremy Hunt in 2016, someone made a brilliant parody trailer of Gladiator and Braveheart, intercutting movie scenes with footage from our demos. Even now, when feeling daunted or scared, I secretly listen to the Gladiator theme. I often played it on the way to work last year.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The defining precept of RJ Palacio’s book, Wonder, is: “If you have a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

What single thing would make your life better?

A fancy coffee machine at work.

When were you happiest?

In a tent in the south of France in 2003. My new boyfriend – now husband – and I were giddy and reeling with love, lust, sunshine and cider. We just knew we would marry.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A teacher. My twin sister is a mentor and inspiration to the children she teaches – I can’t think of a more important job.

Are we all doomed?

Mortality isn’t terrible. It teaches us to savour the present. Cherish what you have, burn bright while you can. 

“Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic” by Rachel Clarke is published by Little, Brown