In retrospect, it might seem that Zoe Riddell was the ideal fit for Bedales. There was an adventurous, somewhat unconventional streak in the family, for a start. “My parents were both in international development and I was at school in Zambia when I was very young,” she reflects. “Mum worked for what is now the Department for International Development and it was because my father was appointed as International Director of Christian Aid that the family came back to the UK in the end.”
Zoe’s mother had a particularly clear idea of the kind of schooling that she eventually wanted for her daughters. “Mum’s an American, who had been at The Putney School in Vermont, which was founded on progressive education values,” Zoe explains. “She wanted something similar for us and although I did spend some time at a local day school in London, which was a very traditional, rather strict place, I eventually joined my twin at Bedales. I liked the school the moment I saw it and I was particularly excited about the idea of Outdoor Work.”
Bedales turned out to be an ideal place for the initially shy Zoe to develop her self-confidence. Outdoor Work was, as she had imagined, one of the main spheres in which she was able to give free expression to her talents, but it was by no means the only one. “Peter Coates was a really inspiring head of outdoor work,” Zoe recalls. “I was part of the team involved in building one of the most recent barns at school, which brought me into contact with loads of new skills – chiselling, working with wood and so on. We’d kept chickens back in Zambia and so I suppose I was a natural choice to be in charge of the chickens at Bedales as well! There were the coracle races too – I loved almost all of it.”
Elsewhere, Zoe was getting involved in the lighting team for a number of theatre productions (“I was still too shy to think about getting on stage myself”) and persuading Martin Box to start up a new jewellery course as an after-school activity. “It was never an extra-curricular thing at Bedales before I got there,” she says with some satisfaction. “I’ve always liked detailed, intricate work with my hands – I did textiles as a GCSE and always regretted not following it through to AS Level.”
In Biology, Richard Sinclair, also my form tutor, was always amazing at allowing you to explore your own interests, however weird and wonderful
It was, however, in the sciences that Zoe would show her greatest ability in the classroom, taking A Levels in Maths, Chemistry and Biology and editing the school’s science magazine. Today she is quick to pay tribute to a number of the mentors who helped her to realise her full academic potential: “Harry Pearson was such an enthusiast in Chemistry and so good at communicating that enjoyment. In Biology, Richard Sinclair, also my form tutor, was always amazing at allowing you to explore your own interests, however weird and wonderful. There was one project during AS Biology which involved looking at the growth rate of maggots, for example...that’s not everyone’s idea of fun but Richard was more than happy for me to create the project and take the initiative with it. In Maths, I was lucky enough to be taught by Jane Webster, who was brilliant at what she did. I was in no way a natural mathematician but she was amazing at explaining complex concepts in ways that allowed you to understand them.”
Before Block 5, Zoe had given little thought to the possibility of a career in medicine, despite her particular passion for the subject of human biology. That year, however, a taster medicine course at Nottingham University lit a spark that is still burning some fifteen years later. “I just thought that medicine might suit me and at Bedales, I was gaining confidence all the time; getting invited to dinners with visiting scientists and developing both an inquisitive mind and a self-motivated attitude,” Zoe observes. “Those experiences at Bedales, I think, were really important in later life for me and allowed me not to feel shy or awkward when I was talking to senior medical figures – consultants, clinicians and so on.”
Zoe left Bedales with some sadness but with her career path well established in her own mind, a fact that was in no way diminished by failure to get into medical school at the first attempt. “I’d always wanted to work abroad in any case so I took a gap year, working in a hospital in southern India for a couple of months to show my commitment to medicine and subsequently spending time at a general practice,” she says. “By the end of that year I was a lot better prepared for what was going to happen than I had been twelve months earlier.”
Six years of studying medicine at Birmingham University was the first requirement for the aspiring doctor. “I loved it but it was really hard work,” Zoe remembers. “Your first two years are mostly spent in lectures, which in our case were from 9am to 5pm, five days a week, and meant that you tend to form a lot of intense friendships with other medics. Even today, most of my friends tend to be doctors; that’s very common in this profession, where the hours and the intensity can be difficult to understand if you’re not a part of it.”
A series of placements at GP practices and in a variety of placements would follow before Zoe took an intercalated (extra) degree in international health after her third year at Birmingham. “That was my year as a proper, typical student, rather than a medical one!” she laughs. “I had luxuries like Wednesday afternoons off and I joined the rock-climbing club - among other things - before spending my final couple of years back on the round of hospital placements and learning the ropes of being a doctor.”
“I just thought that medicine might suit me and at Bedales, I was gaining confidence all the time; getting invited to dinners with visiting scientists and developing both an inquisitive mind and a self-motivated attitude"
As a junior doctor, Zoe’s initial ambition was to become a plastic surgeon. “I think that was maybe a nod back to my days of working on textiles at Bedales,” she chuckles. “There were a couple of surgical placements and I did a few weeks in London before coming back to Birmingham and working in intensive care. In the end, I changed my mind and chose anaesthetics as my specialist area, largely because I wanted a bit more of a work/life balance without compromising on the practical aspect. In medicine, it’s all about finding the speciality that suits you best and there’s no doubt that I’m passionate about anaesthetics. You also have to understand that there can be a lot of frustrations when you’re starting out in the profession; doing admin is no one’s idea of a laugh and it’s not what anyone becomes a doctor for but you need to realise that it’s part of the game.”
Not long ago, Zoe took a year off, dividing her time between driving across America with her boyfriend and a busman’s holiday in Malawi, where she worked in a government hospital. Her return to the continent of her childhood gave Zoe a refreshingly different perspective on life and her profession. “It was good to get back to basics, to rely on basic clinical examination rather than advanced machines to monitor patients,” she says. “By the end of my time in Malawi, I had real confidence in my basic knowledge of anaesthetics, which has been very reassuring since I came back to the UK.”
The medical profession these days is, as Zoe freely acknowledges, not without its share of problems. “A lot has changed even since I started my medical studies,” she says. “There’s more paperwork than ever, which no one likes, morale among many junior doctors can only be described as low and there’s no hiding from the fact that there is a huge shortage of doctors right across the UK. Gaps are being plugged by demanding extra shifts from doctors who are already exhausted and it’s not sustainable over the long term.”
“Those experiences at Bedales, I think, were really important in later life for me and allowed me not to feel shy or awkward when I was talking to senior medical figures – consultants, clinicians and so on"
Medical training, in Zoe’s opinion, is a much more evidence-based process than it was when she was a student. The need for more teachers is therefore pressing and education is another area in which Zoe has ambitions to make a mark in the future. “Ten years from now, I would like to combine a clinical practice as a consultant anaesthetist with teaching, which I regard as crucial to the future of the profession,” she says. “It’s so important to engage with the next generation of doctors. I really enjoy teaching and as I learned at Bedales, to be a good teacher, you must have enthusiasm and you have to be patient. Not everyone grasps concepts quickly and a good teacher is adaptable and always prepared to do things differently when that’s necessary. Didactic is only part of it – you have to be interactive as well.”
Mention of Bedales still provokes happy memories of her school days for Zoe. “Very fond memories,” she agrees. “I always say that Bedales made me who I am today. The only practical problem that I have with Bedales is the nature of my job – as a doctor, you get used to working unsocial hours and for the last Bedales reunion, I was on call. Perhaps next time...”
Zoe was interviewed in June 2019.