29 Apr 2024

Doctor-turned-comedian Adam Kay on finding the funny in a job he found toxic

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 29 April 2024

Adam Kay has been very open with what turned him off working as a doctor and into a successful writer and comedian. 

He'd been working as a junior doctor on a labour ward when an incident in surgery went catastrophically wrong. He kept a diary throughout his medical career, which formed the basis of his wildly popular memoir called This is Going to Hurt - which was made into a TV series. 

Photo of Adam Kay.

Photo: Supplied, Elephant Publicity

He followed that with a sequel, Undoctored, and has also turned to writing children's books - including Kay's Anatomy, Kay's Marvellous Medicine and Kay's Brilliant Brains.

Choosing career in medicine is often made at a young age, Kay says, and this can lead to problems down the track.

“You make the decision to be a doctor when you're 16, essentially, when you're choosing which subjects you want to do for your exams. And that's a very bad age to decide to do anything, let alone the career you want to do for your entire life.

“I'm not entirely sure I knew what I was getting into. I came from a family of doctors; I went to the kind of school that churned out lots of doctors and lawyers and that sort of thing.”

There was, he says, no “informed consent”.

“If you have to go for some kind of procedure, they'll say here's the benefits of it, and here are the risks. And I don't think I had informed consent about going into it [medicine], I just think I was sort of struck by the fun side of it. And no one actually mentioned that, sometimes you have bad days.”

And his bad day was a very bad day indeed, he tells Nine to Noon.

“If you're the most senior doctor on the labour ward, all you want from every patient minimum is a healthy mum and a healthy baby.

"And I had one of those situations where we had neither of those two things. And these things happen, and it's part of the job and it's no one's fault.”

After the event he received no support, Kay says.

“There was no mention of a debrief afterwards, and I wasn't offered a second off work and I wasn't offered a minute of counselling, it was just the expectation to just get on with it, because that's what doctors do.

“Secondly there's probably not enough slack in the system to be able to say, 'maybe you need a couple of weeks off there'. And so, it all adds up to a slightly dysfunctional approach, I guess.”

In the end he left the profession in a bad way, he says.   

“It was a tough time, I didn't go and seek professional help afterwards, because that's not what doctors tend to do. But in retrospect, I quite clearly had some kind of post-traumatic thing going on, I would wake up most nights of the week at three in the morning with my heart going to 100 beats a minute, in a cold sweat, back in that operating theatre. And it took a took a very long time for any of that to subside. It did have a big effect on me.”

When his first book, This Is Going to Hurt, came out he was overwhelmed by the response from other doctors.

“I talked very honestly about struggling, and I had huge numbers of messages from doctors, emails and social media, whatever saying, 'until I read that bit in your book, I thought I was the first doctor who'd ever cried in the locker room,  had ever cried in the toilet'.

“But the truth is that almost every doctor finds himself in that locker room. But the fact that no one talks about it, acknowledges that that's fairly normal, means that on top of whatever bad day you've just had, you feel like you're struggling and you're failing and that's very isolating; the suicide rates amongst medics are very high across the across the world.”

Humour is the way medics and patients alike cope with the stressful environment of the hospital, he says.

“I think it's endlessly relatable. We all encounter hospitals, we're all born in one for the most part, most of us will die in one, and we'll probably spend a lot of time in one along the way and we do deal with some of this stuff through humour.”

Kay is performing his live show This is Going to Hurt at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival in May.