The last three days have been some of the most emotional of my life.

How do you want to die? How to you want your family to say goodbye? Do we have a choice?

On Sunday, a family we were staying with at a ski resort had their 14 year old go missing from 10am until after sundown. He was found. On Monday, my mother-in-law suffered an enormous heart attack on the other side of the world, and is fighting for her life. Today, I gave CPR to a man unknown to me, in a cafe in a tiny town in rural France, who had choked on his lunch. He was surrounded by friends and acquaintances, but no one could help him. It’s three days til Christmas.

I think as I am writing this I am both numbed and seeing clarity through the emotional roller coaster. A whirlwind of booking flights back home, listening to overheard progress updates, making arrangements for children, offering emotional support to new acquaintances, desperately trying to revive a man who wasn’t planning on dying today.
As a doctor, we are all too often on the other side of this human tragedy. Empathy steeled through experience; intellectualised grief. But personal tragedy and the raw immediacy of having a dramatic health event unfold in front of view rapidly changes perspective.

When did you last tell those most precious to you that you love them? When did you last discuss your end of life plans?

I don’t know what the next few weeks will hold for us. However, I now know for certain the answer to a question that I have often been asked: “Should I fly back and see my loved one who is suddenly unwell?”. Yes. Have those difficult conversations before it’s too late. Talk about what choices you want if your life hangs in the balance. Decide to donate your organs. Discuss when its time to let go and when it is time to fight.

Overall, don’t forget to let the people you love know it. You never know when it’s too late.

Back in France!

This week, I arrived back in France after a whirlwind trip to Australia of business, patient consultations and time with family and friends. Seeing patients I haven’t seen for several months was invigorating – like coming home to friends! Doctors are so lucky to engage on such personal level with so many different people.

This short visit back to Brisbane did thrown into sharp relief the social differences between rural France and big-city Australia. A story told by a patient about a workplace incident resonated with me:

“The other day, my manager said to me “Don’t you think it’s about time you started paying more attention to work, and a little less to your family?” I said “No… and I quit!” much to my manager’s surprise.”

I secretly wanted to give this patient a high five (I may even have done so!) for standing up for their principles. Disturbingly, the employer is one who would be considered one of the more family friendly in our society. What really struck me was how this work life balance is maintained so much more effectively here in France. Children are dropped to school at 9am. Work continues to midday, when everything shuts except the cafes and restaurants. Midday til 2pm later is for family and friends. Then work starts again until 6pm. It’s a rhythm of life structured around balancing work and family.

I can’t imagine anyone chastising their employee in this fashion here. More importantly, I can’t imagine them even thinking it!

Ironically, it seems that the more legislation is introduced around protecting working parent’s rights in Australia, the more our cultural norms rail against families. Why is it that we as a society act in such a hypocritical fashion? We profess to value families, and yet act in a fashion that the dollar is almighty, and that the greatest measure of a society is its financial productivity.

France our Way

Why am I here?

Leaving family, friends, uprooting our lives; kids school, work, patients, a nice house, comfortable life. Why on earth would you do that?

That was the most common question I got when telling people that we were moving to France. When I explained I was taking a sabbatical, there was generally a quizzical look, a few jovial comments about cheese and wine and an polite comment proffered along the lines of “well, I hope you come back!”

I asked myself the same question many times, and I can’t pretend that nervousness wasn’t my main emotion for the preceding months of planning. My fantastic wife Alison was the instigator and chief planner, her logistical skills coming into their own when we decided to not only move overseas, but also to move houses in Australia prior to leaving. Ironically, this complexity was driven by an underlying single goal: to make life simpler.

To us, this drive to live a simpler life means many things: living in the country, more slow-cooking, being there for the children at school drop off and pickup, helping and knowing our neighbours more, taking time to visit the fresh food market, tending a garden, having a less glamorous, more kid-friendly house & car, time to cycle together, time to read and study, being away from the hustle and bustle of the city, being distant from that small but uniquely urban threat of terrorism, the freedom for the children to roam.

Why France? Why Not? We fell in love with the Côte-d’Azur before settling down with marriage and children – intoxicated by the rhythm of life, the scenery, the food and the wine. In Cassis, the air was thick with the cliches of French men playing pétanque with a glass of wine in hand, women with small dogs sitting and drinking coffee and the aroma of Provençal food wafting from every home. Contrast this with the whizzing of cars, fast food lifestyle and close isolation of city life and you can imagine the cognitive dissonance.

Could this rhythm of life be why the French have historically enjoyed a long life, despite plenty of cheese, wine and rich food? With the small nations of Monaco, San Marino and Andorra all sharing a similar lifestyle to that which we yearned, and all ranking above Australia in life expectancy, living here would seem the best way to find out. I look forward to reporting on “France our Way” in search of the antidote to our declining social and cultural health.