Dr Olga-Maria Tsatalou
Dr Tsatalou is a consultant general adult psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. She is one of 25 women to be highlighted as part of a special project that celebrates the stories of 25 amazing women psychiatrists.
Dr Tsatalou's story
When I arrived in England with my medical degree from Athens, I didn’t know what specialty I was going to pursue. As a House Officer I used to spend time in the evenings just talking to the patients whenever I got the opportunity. One evening, an elderly woman said to me, “You are so good at talking and listening to people, you should become a psychiatrist”. Although I had always been interested in the social and psychological aspects of people’s lives, this had never really occurred to me before then.
I decided to take her advice and began my career in psychiatry, completing my registrar training on the Oxford Rotational Scheme where I subsequently became a Specialist Registrar in Psychotherapy. This played a major role in my development as a psychiatrist, and at the end of my psychotherapy training it became clear to me that I wanted to pursue specialty training in general adult psychiatry also. The main reason for this was my wish to continue caring for patients with the whole range of psychiatric disorders.
In the meantime, I had met my partner, who is also a psychiatrist, and we had our first child soon after. I took a year’s break on maternity leave, experiencing the joys and challenges of motherhood, and following this I returned as a part time trainee. I had our second child in quick succession and as I was very fortunate to have the support of my family when I returned from my second maternity leave, I was able to resume full-time training once again.
My first consultant post was in a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) in Witney, Oxfordshire. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of experiencing a CMHT model based on working very closely within a small multidisciplinary team (MDT) which was serving a semi-rural community and establishing close links with GPs whilst maintaining full continuity of care of patients throughout their journey, including whenever they needed hospital admission. During this time, I had the opportunity to really get to know all my patients and their families and develop very close relationships with my MDT colleagues.
After nine years working in a CMHT, and as result of our trust deciding to split community from inpatient care, I took the difficult decision to leave the CMHT and become the consultant for an acute female inpatient ward, where I have been working for the last seven years. Initially, I attempted to maintain a similar role within the inpatient ward, spending my time getting to know and hopefully understand all the patients and their families. I soon realised that the overall functioning of the ward was of the greatest significance in the experience and quality of care each patient received, and I worked very closely with the ward MDT to try and develop it. Although the ward is at times under considerable clinical pressure, I do find it encouraging to see every single member of the MDT committed to the individual care of the patients, ensuring their stay is a therapeutic one. It has been very gratifying when we receive feedback from patients, relatives, ward staff, trainees and medical students that the ward is experienced as a nurturing environment.
Throughout my career, I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity of being involved in the clinical teaching of medical studentsand in the training of junior doctors. Helping students and trainees to develop their skills and adopt a holistic approach, whilst understanding the fundamental importance of establishing trust and maintaining therapeutic relationships, has been a highly rewarding experience which has helped to keep me going. It has been very gratifying to be able to follow the careers of some of my past medical students and trainees and on occasions to have the chance to work alongside them as consultant colleagues.
The past year with the pandemic has, of course, been an unprecedented one, and it is difficult not to acknowledge the profound impact it has had on our lives and our ability to continue providing the same quality of care for our patients. Current working conditions, including the requirements of wearing PPE and the expansion of telecommunication, alter staff and patient experience, particularly within the ward environment, and challenge our ability to develop and sustain therapeutic relationships with our patients during a particularly vulnerable time in their life. I have been lucky enough so far not to have become unwell and I have not needed to take time off work, but I have known and been close to others who have not been so fortunate. This experience has made me very aware of the importance of supporting others and oneself to maintain a hopeful outlook and try to create as great a degree of normality as possible in the circumstances.
Overall, as I am coming toward the end of my career journey, I feel grateful to all those (family, friends, colleagues and trainees) who have supported and encouraged me over the years but I am aware that my work-life balance is still a work in progress. I still feel very lucky to have a job that, despite its stresses and challenges, places me in such a privileged position that allows me to get close to many peoples’ lives, hopefully to influence positive change for them. There have been many times when I have felt stressed and frustrated, usually more with systems and bureaucratic processes than with individuals, but looking back I have never felt I could have followed a more fulfilling, rewarding and stimulating career path. I have rarely lost my passion and enthusiasm and, although I now feel much less certain about so many things compared to when I started my training, what I feel more convinced about than ever is the importance of investing in relationships with patients, trainees and colleagues whilst keeping an open mind, with an awareness of our blind spots and the limitations of our knowledge and interventions, all the while trying to maintain a lightness and sense of humour.
Why Dr Tsatalou was nominated
Here's what Dr Sophie Behrman had to say about Dr Tsatalou in her nomination:
Dr Tsatalou has been a huge support and inspiration throughout my career. I first met her as a medical student in 2009, when she inspired me to explore a career in psychiatry. I was touched by how much interest she took in me as a human being (and has continued to do so throughout the time I’ve had the pleasure of working with her) and I was motivated by how she provided such calm, compassionate leadership in a busy AMHT, and balanced her career with her (then) young family.
She has always been open and honest about difficulties faced balancing home and work commitments and her wisdom has really helped me as I navigate life in specialty training with 2 small children. I know of many other women psychiatrists who have found her friendship and guidance invaluable.
Dr Tsatalou is an outstanding clinician. She manages a busy women’s ward and is well-respected by her patients and ward staff for providing exemplary clinical care and maintaining a compassionate and holistic patient-centred approach despite the high turnover and pressures of the role. She never appears jaded; she seeks to find the positive in people and situations and is open to learning from patients and team members alike.
Dr Tsatalou is extremely modest and is truly an unsung hero. Her focus on providing outstanding clinical care and support to colleagues beyond her official duties are not characteristics which easily gain accolades and recognition. I was unsure if I should even nominate her as I know she would not like a fuss made of her, but I would like to think that psychiatrists like Dr Tsatalou can be celebrated on a par with those who contribute to research and other more widely acclaimed pursuits.