Faye Donald, a dental hygienist, speaks openly about the impact of a GDC investigation on her physical and mental health and her inspiration behind not giving up.
For me, facing a GDC hearing was life changing and very nearly career ending, but not for the reasons you’d think...
I didn’t see it at first. I trampled right over it hiding under the local pizza delivery flyer. It was the 16th June 2014 and my 38th birthday. Only when I answered the door to my friends who’d just arrived to celebrate with me, did I notice the letter on the doormat.
I briefly noted the GDC logo and then the ‘Open Immediately’ warning. I greeted my friends with all the enthusiasm I could muster, trying to ignore the unwelcome sound of blood flow pulsing through my ears. Once confident no one would notice, I snuck off upstairs where I locked myself in the bathroom and opened the envelope that would change everything.
There it was. In black and white. Every clinician’s worst fear. The GDC had received information regarding a ‘misrepresentation of my role’ on a practice website and as such had launched an investigation. Attached was the email from an anonymous sender which detailed the whistle-blowers ‘grave concerns’.
In that moment the world stopped turning. I felt my throat tighten as all air was sucked from my lungs. What did the website say? I hadn’t written it, so how was I to blame? Who could’ve done this and why? What had I ever done to hurt anyone? I knew the rules and I stuck to them. It didn’t make any sense.
What now? What was going to happen to me? Sheer terror set in. My body froze, my breathing quickened and before I could stop myself, I turned to the great white bowl next to me and threw up.
I had been a qualified Dental Hygienist for 14 years. In that time, I’d not only become an accomplished clinician but one who strove to be the positive change I wanted to see in our industry. I wanted to support, to raise standards, to undo the negative image surrounding hygienists and I believed I could change the world. Laugh as you might. In the words of the late great Steve Jobs; “the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who generally do”.
The days and weeks that followed was as much of a blur as the investigation itself. So few details and so much uncertainty. I was at the mercy of a governing body who knew nothing about me except what someone else had told them. My indemnifiers at Dental Protection provided incredible support but the ‘what-ifs’ stayed with me day and night. Appetite abandoned me, and the part of my brain responsible for carrying out the simplest of tasks had frozen. The physical pain of having a permanent knot in my stomach was crippling.
Anyone who’s been mercilessly deprived of sleep will tell you how torturous night-time can be. Even if it’s not a matter of life or death, all perspective is lost when it’s just you and your racing thoughts, as the weight of your uncertain fate pins you to the mattress and holds you there.
Once flagged up to the GDC, part of an investigation is to build a picture – or case – and I was required to supply details of my current and recent employers. For me, that was three practices and four dentists. They each received a letter informing them of the investigation. They were asked to give their opinion on my fitness to practice, pass comment on my social behaviour and answer questions regarding my professional conduct.
Finding yourself at the mercy of another person’s subjective opinion and facing the prospect of being judged out of context is torture. I felt utterly violated. The cocktail of emotions that engulfed me changed hourly. First there was the shame. The pure, unadulterated shame that came with colleagues being given a platform on which to judge. The paranoia felt like I was living in a goldfish bowl, imagining that every conversation that stopped as I walked into the staff room was about me.
Then there was the sheer rage. At the system, at the whistle-blower and at the condescending head tilt from one dentist who deemed it necessary to share his observation that “that’s what happens when you go sticking your head above the parapet”.
There was the humiliation, as the specialist I worked for read out the information he’d received from the GDC to his own indemnity company (over speaker phone), asking their advice on whether he should suspend me. I stood there like a naughty child, listening to them debating my worth and fighting back tears in an attempt to cling on to the ounce of dignity I had left. After deciding it was unethical to sack me, they agreed that should my boss have his reputation or the reputation of his practice tarnished as a result of my actions, he could pursue a claim for damages. What about my reputation I thought? But no one seemed interested in that. By the time I left the room, what started off as shaky hands had evolved into full body convulsion which lasted until once again, I vomited.
Then there was the guilt. Oh, how I’d let everyone down. Especially my boss who was kind, supportive, and had championed me from day one. For years he’d embraced my passionate nature and determination. His support for me didn’t waver, but I imagined his underlying disappointment and found myself struggling to look him in the eye.
And finally, there was the fear. I was quite simply terrified. During the weeks of sleepless nights, impending doom, manic gathering of information and complex legal jargon, I fought to continue to deliver the quality of patient centred care I’d always prided myself on.
Sadly, that battle ended abruptly when around four weeks in, I overlooked a patient’s allergy to mint, and offered him a pre-op mouthwash containing that very ingredient. Only because the patient had smelt the flavouring had we escaped a disaster that would’ve surely sealed my fate. The patient shrugged it off, but I couldn’t. As I replaced the mouthwash with water, I felt a strange sensation creeping over me. It started as a warm, heated, tingling feeling that rapidly spread across my chest, my arms and into my throat. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. What was happening? A heart attack? A stroke? An anaphylaxis? I had to get out. I ran from my surgery and into the street where I collapsed to the floor. Then, blackness…
It turned out to be nothing more than a ‘simple’ panic attack. Something I’d never experienced before, and something I still struggle to comprehend now. How could I lose the ability to perform the simple act of breathing? Finally, I accepted defeat. I’d been hit by a metaphorical train and was clearly at breaking point.
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I had become unsafe to practice and the irony wasn’t lost on me. I wasn’t as strong as I thought and if truth be told, I no longer wanted to be. I wanted to curl up under a duvet and make the world go away and that’s exactly what I did.
I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt. I was ashamed of how poorly I’d handled the whole thing and how easily I’d crumpled under pressure. I’ve heard stories of clinicians taking their own lives whilst under investigation and it’s chilling to know how desperate they must have felt. If it weren’t for the unwavering support of my loving family and friends, I don’t know where I’d be right now.
I was one of the lucky ones. It took three months to receive confirmation that the GDC’s investigation had reached the conclusion that no further action was required, and my case would not be taken to the fitness to practise (FTP) committee. And just like that it was over. The violation, the stress, the worry, the trauma. I could return to my old self and put it down to experience… right?
Well, not exactly. The panic attacks continued for six months after the investigation ended. I realise with hindsight that a visit to my GP may have helped, but the perceived stigma of mental health hung around my neck, and I couldn’t face the shame of being judged again.
The post-traumatic stress lasted much longer. As I drove home each day, I would mentally prepare for reading the mail. I would hold my breath as I opened the door and looked down, skimming the envelopes for a GDC logo.
My work suffered too. I lost my autonomy. I became scared of making decisions and only saw the worst-case scenario and the worst possible outcome. The whole ordeal left me so distressed and exhausted that with a heavy heart I decided to remove myself from the register. The passion that had once flowed so effortlessly through me had drained away, and I was living in constant fear of litigation. I was frightened that should I encounter any such investigation again; I simply wouldn’t survive it.
Just as I was contemplating my career exit strategy, another envelope arrived. This time it was from one of my practices and contained a letter from a patient; a lapsed attender who’d come to me complaining of bad breath, and tearfully confided that for 23 years he’d been too embarrassed to kiss his wife. He was the type of patient I loved treating, and together we’d put his smile back together – and his confidence.
The letter began; “Dearest Faye. Today I kissed my wife...”
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read about the difference I’d made to his life. I held the letter to my chest and looked down at the floor where I’d found the fateful GDC letter six months ago. It was then I realised it was time to pick myself up, dust myself down and get back to doing what I did best.
Since then, and my decision to remain on the register, I’ve continued to practice with my head held high. I realise now that it’s our reaction to adversity and not adversity itself that defines us.
I now want to raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing, and I’m involved in a project on work-related stress in our industry. I hope that my story will help to inspire others to speak out and seek the help they need.
To anyone reading this who has concerns about colleagues; consider a phone call, a few words of warning or an email to the practice as a first port of call. Mistakes can and do happen.
And if you know someone currently on an FTP, reach out to them. Not everyone is as tough as they look.
In a world where we can be anything - lets be kind.
All Dental Protection members can access our wellbeing service, which includes access to confidential counselling via our trusted partners ICAS. Go to dentalprotection.org/wellbeing to find out more.