Gabriel Weston is a woman of many professional pursuits, between being a practicing surgeon, an accomplished writer, and a BBC presenter.
Starting out at the University of Edinburgh studying English literature, Weston expressed her curiosity in surgery to her friend’s father who was a surgeon. Upon accepting an invitation to witness an operation, she revelled in the magic of the theatre and actively changed her life to achieve this dream.
From there she went to study at the Royal College of Surgeons, qualifying as a doctor in 2000, eventually specialising as an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat surgeon. “As a literature graduate I thought that that was where the identity was, in what we see and hear and smell and taste,” says Weston. “It is who we are and what we make of the world.”
Having established herself as a promising surgeon, she turned her attentions to writing. In 2009, her first book Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story was published to much acclaim, winning and being nominated for multiple awards. The book is separated into 14 autobiographical short stories, regaling the reader with tales of her training, practice, and extraordinary experiences working as a surgeon. She wrote the stories while also training as a surgeon between operating theatres and lecture halls.
Despite a hectic schedule thrown in at the deep end of such a pressurised profession, she maintained motivation to document her story with a little help from her publisher. “It was basically the publisher’s cheque. If I didn’t get to the end of the process I knew I would have to pay the advance,” she said jovially. “Once I had written three or four stories I knew there was no turning back. It was an enjoyable and interesting process overall.
“Writing is a funny thing because it is sort of agonising,” she continued. “You have to be enormously disciplined and no one really cares what you’re writing about. About 90 per cent of what comes out is rubbish and has to go in the bin, so I don’t think it would be fair to say that I enjoy it. But it is very fulfilling when you have said something that you wanted to say.”
With the first book a critical and commercial success Weston decided to take a step back from surgery, practising once a week, and began working full time on a follow-up. As an avid reader of fiction, she wanted to write a book that she would have read herself. Having already steadied her hand as a non-fiction writer, she felt intrigued by the prospect of tackling a more difficult form; the novel.
Her next instalment, Dirty Work, was released in 2013. The novel deals with the delicate subject of abortions, particularly abortion providers. Nancy, Weston's protagonist, is a gynaecologist and abortion provider who botches a procedure leaving her patient on the edge of life and death and questioning her own professional and moral position. For Weston, the long form novel was the best way to tackle a subject on which most people already have a firm opinion. "What a novel has to do in order to succeed is to be completely ambiguous. I felt that it was a good form for raising questions for the reader to decide themselves. It was really exciting and I really wanted to write a book where the reader didn’t know whether I was pro-abortion or anti-abortion, so that the reader could find their own place in the argument."
As part of her work on the novel, Weston spent much of her time speaking with abortion providers and sitting in on actual procedures to get a lucid understanding of this world from the frontline. She also met many people on either side of the debate to better understand these polarised and conflicting opinions, regardless of her own conviction. "Intellectually it was very interesting because everyone I had met had such a firm opinion, either people were anti abortion or they were hugely in favour of it. It was interesting how dogmatic everyone seemed to be on that subject. Actually going into the abortion theatres was tough, it was really hard to watch, but because I was writing from the point of view of someone who does abortions for a living, I knew I needed to be able to do that."
The most daunting part of the process for Weston was in the writing. The most difficult undertaking was how to approach the description of an abortion to the reader in detail. "If I was writing a book about silence and how people find it difficult to talk about it, I knew I would have to describe an abortion, and artistically working out a way to do that that felt honest without being gratuitous and shocking was really difficult," she said. 'I think I managed it in the end by putting that section in italics so that the reader when they get to that part of the book could make a choice about whether or not they read it."
The whole experience also informed her own opinion on the subject, although not in the way she had expected. “I am very pro-abortion and I do believe that women should have the right to make that choice, but I really do understand why people who are anti-abortion feel so strongly about it,” she says cautiously. “I haven’t met anyone who was pro-choice who feels sympathetic towards people who are anti-abortion.
“Having witnessed many abortions, I understand why people who think it is wrong feel as strongly as they do. I think that an abortion is something that should be a final resort, a necessary evil. It is a really difficult subject and I don’t feel completely clear cut about it.”
Her success as an author over the past number of years has introduced her to the public and the media, and it was at a literary festival that the lure of lights, camera, and action beckoned. Initially the BBC approached her about presenting an episode of its long-running documentary series Horizon, entitled ‘The Truth about Fat’. “It is not something that I ever thought I would be good at or would’ve enjoyed, so it has been one of those strange and really wonderful things that came to me completely by accident.”
Impressed with her skill facing into the lens, coupled with Gabriel’s own surprise interest in health journalism, she followed up her television debut with the co-presenting of a new show Trust me I’m a Doctor, which aired last year with a second season expected in late summer or early autumn. The programme is a health magazine series where Weston, flanked by three other eminent health professionals, presents different aspects of medicine. Weston presented future medicines, travelling around the world in search of everything from cutting edge surgery to the development of exciting new treatments. “It was a lovely opportunity to meet people who are doing really cutting edge things, people that I would never normally get to meet, that most doctors would never get to see.”
It is certain that Gabriel Weston leads a very demanding and contrasting life, juggling four jobs including motherhood, which has in many ways split her into four different Gabriels. She has already achieved much of what these professions have to offer between becoming a respected specialist surgeon, a published and award-winning writer, and the presenter of a successful and innovative television series.
Her preference out of the three jobs is indicative of her work ethic however, deriving satisfaction out of the overall experience rather than singling out one in particular. “I love the combination of all of them, having that amount of variety in my life. The surgery is very practical, the writing is imaginative, and the presenting is just more of a pleasure. And then there is always the fourth job of being a mother, which is the most grounding of them all.”
The birth of twins this year has given a measure of perspective to her life, and for the near future at least she intends to be primarily a full time mother, devoting her time and energy to her family now before she is once again ready to look out on the world and see what next to turn her talented hands towards.
Gabriel Weston will be in conversation with Dr Maccon Keane at the Aula Maxima, NUI Galway, on July 19 at 4pm as part of the Galway International Arts Festival’s First Thought Talks series. Tickets are €7, available through www.giaf.ie