Real Life

Surgeon Ineke’s honest memoir

Opening up about her experiences proved to be the best medicine
Ineke sitting sideways on a green couch, one arm propped up against the back to rest her head againstPhotos: Kellie Blizard

Ineke Meredith’s extraordinary memoir On Call: Stories From My Life as a Surgeon, a Daughter and a Mother started out as a way of acknowledge the patients whose lives crossed paths with hers during her career as a surgeon.

“It was a form of catharsis initially,” she says of the notes she took to help her deal with the demands of her job. “I would go home with these stories in my head about who these people were and what had happened to them. Writing them down and expressing how they had touched me was a way of getting my feelings out, as well as paying tribute to the patients.”

She compiled her words into a manuscript, which she showed to friends and editors in the publishing industry. Their feedback was all the same.

“They said it was powerful, but they got to the end and they wanted to know about me. About the person who was navigating these situations, some of which were really sad and horrible.

“I then had to think long and hard about putting my life on paper and exposing so much about myself. I’d spent many years not telling anybody about things I was going through personally. In the end, I decided to do it.”

Ineke actively performing surgery
Ineke reveals, “The surgeons I were working with were unhappy and exhausted.”

The resulting book is a brutally honest and often harrowing read that also manages to be poignant, thought-provoking and at times even funny. Ineke, 42, documents numerous cases she worked on. From two 15-year-olds left with devastating injuries from a car crash following a police chase (both later died) to a man with a stomach full of fish hooks.

She truthfully recounts the times she ended up in tears. One of the times included when she cried every day after visiting a 26-year-old woman with terminal rectal cancer. Another was when she wept while stitching up a two-year-old girl who died on the operating table.

“There’s this misconception that surgeons are cold, but that’s so far from the truth,” she says. “You do have to be tough, but we have feelings too. I think being compassionate makes you a better surgeon. You have to acknowledge your emotions and then compartmentalise them so you can move on.”

Anger and frustration are other emotions she details. She recalls several incidences of sexual harassment. One of which was when her boss told her she was incompetent shortly after he propositioned her and she declined. Also included were the sexist opinions some male colleagues formed of female patients and the times patients assumed she was a nurse.

Ineke and son Ullrich in front of an Asian restaurant
With her son Ullrich.

In between the work stories, Ineke opens up about what was going on in her own life. In her last year of medical school, she was shocked to discover she was 26 weeks pregnant.

No longer with the baby’s father and with the help of her mother Pele and her sisters, she juggled raising her son Ullrich, now 20, with studying and then an intense job. She often wonders how she did it.

“I gave birth on a Monday and sat an exam on that Friday!” she recalls. “I asked if it could be postponed but was told no. I had to do it.”

She couldn’t have coped without her family. Ineke was born in New Zealand to parents of mixed Samoan heritage. She spent a large part of her childhood in Samoa and helped support her mum after her bowel cancer diagnosis. Writing about the five-year battle Pele endured before she died had Ineke in tears, but she’s glad she did it.’

A selfie of Ineke and her husband Krishna
With her husband Krishna.

As much as she loved operating, last year she decided to stop working as a surgeon.

“The system drained me, along with the lack of resources and the limitations that make it difficult for people to do their jobs efficiently,” she admits. “The surgeons I was working with were unhappy and exhausted. I thought, ‘I don’t want to end up like that.’”

Ineke is now married to renowned French breast surgeon Krishna Clough and is living in Paris. She started Fur Love, a business that makes skincare products for dogs.

There’s a lot she misses about being a surgeon.

The cover of Ineke's book, On Call: Stories From My Life as a Surgeon, a Daughter and a Mother

“I miss the emergency work, the camaraderie when you are working in a team and, of course, the engagement with patients,” she tells. “I feel very privileged to have been a part of people’s lives when they needed it. I’m very happy to have lived that life, but now I am excited about doing something different.”

On Call by Ineke Meredith (Harper Collins, $39.99) is out now at Paper Plus or any other book retailer near you.

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