In 2016 Foundation Doctor Ali Blatcher started a new job. Except the new job wasn’t in a hospital, it was in Eden: a new wilderness community started by 23 volunteers, cut off from the outside world, and filmed for Channel 4. She is now undertaking a Masters in Medical Anthropology at UCL whilst living and locuming in Brighton as part of her FY3 year. She is also a well-being officer for the Medic Footprints committee, a social enterprise that focuses on alternative career paths and well-being for medics, and presented the Dr Rose Polge award for them at their annual conference this year. Here, Ali reflects on what it was like taking the somewhat alternative leap into becoming a participant and doctor on reality TV.
In 2016, I was offered a life-changing and unique opportunity: to take part in a ground-breaking social experiment. 23 strangers were to be placed into the wilderness, cut off from society, each with a different skill needed to form a new community called “Eden”. The experiment would be directed and produced by Keo North, and broadcast on Channel 4 as an observational documentary in ‘the construct of an alternative reality’. Also known as ‘reality TV’. I was kindly granted time out of Foundation Programme by Wessex Deanery during my FY2 year, who were highly encouraging about the experience, and off I went.
At medical school I had been voted “Most Likely to Present Embarrassing Bodies”… My ambition had always been to be a media doctor, and I found my opportunity on Adventure Medic, who advertised for the Eden casting on their website. And so here I was, one of two doctors practicing medicine in the wilderness, with limited equipment and investigations, far from secondary care, with cameras watching every move I made. Neither medical school, nor foundation training, had taught me how to do this particular job.
A tough environment
We had a psychological assessment before entering the environment, but nothing could have prepared us mentally for the cold, hunger and strenuous manual labour that was demanded of us. The environment itself was treacherous, comprised of steep mountains, wild coastal waters and waterlogged bogs in the rural Scottish Highlands. Every day offered new challenges and dangerous tasks, including tree-felling, chopping wood, fishing at sea and tending to large campfires. These tasks were undertaken by a group of people who were drained physically and mentally. We were hungry and stressed, and living amongst strangers who were not always united by a common goal.
Learning the ropes
I learned the different roles of being a medic on expedition, extending from simple medical care to an almost maternal role. I was surprised by how much I was leant upon, even for cuts, grazes and simple colds. My role was, however, vital at times – cleaning and dressing wounds from infected insect bites and preventing the spread of a bout of gastroenteritis with stringent hygiene measures. I had attended two expedition medicine courses before the project; everything that came up on those courses happened, and more. Luckily we had prepared well, had meticulously organised medical kit, waterproof documentation paper and ensured the medical stock was kept clean, dry and at the correct temperature at all times.
As a doctor in a TV programme, every examination you perform and every prescription you write could be shown to millions and is open to scrutiny by fellow colleagues. This is the risk of TV doctoring, and it can make you feel pretty paranoid. It was something I considered carefully and discussed with the production company before agreeing to the show.
The psychological well-being of the participants was of paramount importance. Everyone’s psychological health was compromised at some point, and this included my own, exacerbated when taking on other people’s problems. At times I felt myself getting paranoid and severely anxious; the cameras were on us at all times and I never forgot about them, which added to the stress. Support was available to us in the form of a clinical psychologist, who was contactable by phone – I used this to my advantage and encouraged others to follow suit.
As the spec said, we were “cut off from society”. However, the doctors were given our own radios so there was a direct link to the producers in the event of illness. I organised a simulation trauma scenario to test out this process, which was successful. We also taught basic life support to the other contributors, so that they could respond to an event. Luckily the radios were not needed for any major trauma, but I did have to call through a dislocated finger that had been crushed by a log. It was a significant challenge to explain the issues, from a doctor’s point of view, to a production team more familiar with the media industry than medical jargon.
Knowing when to stop
My time in Eden taught me a great deal about myself and about humanity. I felt that, as well as being the medic, my role in the team was one of morale booster. I was told that I frequently lifted the mood of the camp, whether with a ukulele song or a chat. Importantly, however, I also learned what my limits were. By four months, I felt I had gained enough and decided to withdraw myself from the process.
I do think it takes courage to sign up for something like this, but I believe it takes more guts to call it a day. I missed my friends and family, wanted to finish my FY2 training and was keen to see what else medicine had to offer me and vice versa. It also became simply too difficult to oversee the health of twenty others, whilst I was entrenched in a chronically stressful situation. Having the insight to acknowledge this, and then to make that decision to leave, is what I am truly proud of myself for. The remaining participants were looked after by the production team and the local GP in the area.
Many people have asked if I regret the experience. I certainly don’t, as I think that every life event, good and bad, can teach you many things. My learning curve in those four months was so steep. I learned about morals and ethics, teamwork and leadership, social group dynamics, community, psychology and diversity. And I learned what is important in life: interpersonal human interactions and new experiences, versus material objects and home comforts.
My biggest insight was realising that I am an individual with my own goals and ambitions, and it is up to me to follow them. Many doctors feel trapped in their profession. Whilst always having respect for the decisions of those around me, I feel enabled to go down an unconventional path in my career, and live my life in a way that makes me feel happy and wholesome. Having lived in a community where we made our own rules, I now feel a new sense of freedom.
I have now completed my foundation training, and reintegration was not a walk in the park. After many months in social isolation it can take time to readjust to the hustle and bustle of normal working life. I still find it strange that I participated in such a bizarre situation. If I were to give advice to those thinking of signing up for something similar, I would say go for it and take the risk… but be kind to yourself, and to others along the journey.
Feel like watching the controversial social experiment yourself? Catch up here on All 4.