Doctor in the house: interview with Sandesh Gulhane MSP
Sandesh Gulhane knows the meaning of sacrifice. But the GP and newly elected Scottish Conservative MSP for Glasgow is acutely aware he isn’t the only one.
In a stirring maiden speech in the Scottish Parliament chamber last month, Gulhane spoke with raw honesty about the depths of his own experience working on the front line at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
Sharing an experience that will have resonated with many, he said: “As the pandemic struck, I did what thousands of other Scottish healthcare workers did: I kept seeing my patients. The brightest lights shine only in the darkest skies and, during the pandemic, I have seen the bravery and humanity of my colleagues shine very brightly indeed.
“But I had low points too. When my lockdown baby was born, I stayed away because of the fear of passing COVID to her. I did not hug her for eight weeks, my newborn baby, but I kept seeing my patients. I kept my distance from my seven-year-old son because of the fear of passing COVID to him. One day, he asked my wife why I didn’t love him anymore, had he done something wrong? But like my nursing colleagues, I kept seeing my patients.”
Just how difficult was that period in his life? That early stage of the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty – when so little was known or understood about the virus – and medical professionals faced difficult decisions at home as they continued to prioritise the health of strangers. It’s one of the first questions I broach during our conversation, in which we reflect on his first month or so as an elected member.
“It was hard enough with my baby,” he tells Holyrood, the emotion in his voice clear. “Watching this tiny little thing, all you want to do is give her a cuddle, give her a kiss, touch her toes, play with her feet. Just watching and not being able to participate, that was really difficult.
“But at least I had my son and then to find out that he was worried that he had done something wrong, he was worried that I was angry with him and I didn’t love him anymore, that broke my heart. It really broke my heart.
“I’m not special or unique in any way. Nothing I’ve done is not replicated by thousands of people around Scotland, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands around the UK. Everyone who works in the NHS, key workers, they are doing things which involve significant sacrifice.”
It was Gulhane’s experience during the early stage of the pandemic that would prove formative in his decision to pursue a career in politics. He felt frustration at the level of communication between the Scottish Government and medics and was supplied with out of date personal protective equipment (PPE).
“It was genuinely a case of this is my life that I’m putting at risk because I don’t how good this equipment is,” he says. “Things like that drove me to the idea that there must be a better way and wanting to come across and bring my experience of being a doctor since 2006, of both primary and secondary care, and trying to help in the post-pandemic recovery.”
The London-born doctor studied at Imperial College and worked in the UK’s capital, as well as Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and Sunderland, before moving to Glasgow – “a long time ago now,” he quips.
The city he now represents is close to his heart and for one simple reason. “It’s the people. They are unique. I remember coming here, it was one of the first times I’d come, I hadn’t been here for long and I remember asking somebody for directions… They started describing it to me and they could see I was a bit confused. They said: ‘Not to worry, I’ll take you’ and promptly walked me there… It’s that friendly, positive nature of the people of Glasgow. That is the reason I love the place so much.”
Gulhane considers himself to have a dual mandate, a duty to both Glasgow and the NHS. He has been appointed as his party’s shadow minister for public health, women’s health and sport, and has wasted no time in getting to work at parliament.
He wants to see children’s wellbeing practitioners to ease some of the burden on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and is desperate for long COVID clinics, which have been created south of the border, to be brought to Scotland.
“It’s a devastating problem that we’ve got right now and [I’m] trying to ensure that we get long COVID clinics set up here in Scotland,” he adds. “They’ve got them in England, and I need them here, because my patients are suffering.” He says he will be asking for a lot more from the government going forward – including measures to address burnout among doctors – but is also keen to ensure he savours the experience of being an elected representative.
“It’s been incredibly different to anything that I’ve known before,” he says. “Let’s talk about my first day when I turned up. There’s a whole bunch of people that wanted to take my photograph… and then they were surprised that I wanted to take a selfie of them taking a photo. Because this isn’t normal. People don’t have this happen. It’s incredible.”
The GP is also the club doctor for Queen’s Park, where he was given a Scottish League 2 winners medal after their title success last season. He is passionate about sport and enjoys travelling, exercise and going to the cinema with his son.
His parents were immigrants who came to the UK with nothing and worked. “Their dream was education, ensuring that they could buy a house,” Gulhane explains. “They wanted to be safe, they wanted to earn money and keep as much of that money as they could, within reason, paying taxes. Those are all values that are truly Conservative.”
Gulhane is proud to be the first male of Indian heritage to be elected to Holyrood and hopes his own journey will inspire others. “I’m hoping that somebody sees me, some kid sees me and says: ‘He looks like me, he talks like me, he doesn’t look anything special. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I be bigger? Why can’t I be the first minister?’… If I get just one other person, I feel that’d be a huge success.”
Unfortunately, however, there’s a toxicity that shouldn’t but ultimately does come with having a public profile and Gulhane has already received “a huge amount of abuse” on social media.
“When I asked for new money from the Scottish Government to instigate new COVID clinics, I was called corrupt. I didn’t really understand how that was possible for me to be corrupt when I’m not even in government to make that decision. I’m asking for this to help people.
“There’s been some really bad abuse that I’ve received, which has been racist that I’ve just blocked straight off. Yes, this is happening. We can see from footballers, from sportspeople, the abuse that they’re getting.
“It shouldn’t be part and parcel of what an MSP does because I’m trying to help. I’m very open and honest about it. But I won’t kowtow to these people who think that if they say horrible things that I will shut up, because that won’t happen.
“There are people out there who are very tired, who don’t say anything but who agree. I can’t think of many people that disagree that we need to recover from our pandemic and with health.
“I want them to know the things that I’m doing. I want them to be aware and I want to learn.”