Return to previous page

Women’s History Month – Elizabeth Ashley

Women’s History Month – Elizabeth Ashley featured image

Dr Liz Ashley (LHS 1983) is a consultant in Cardiothoracic Anaesthesia and Cardiothoracic Intensive Care at St Bartholomew’s Cardiothoracic Centre in London.

She is also a member of  W1 Anaesthesia, a group of 10 anaesthetists from teaching hospitals in central London providing private anaesthetic services to various central London private hospitals.

She has been a consultant for 25 years - since 1998. Her previous consultant posts have been at University College Hospital and The Heart Hospital and prior to that King’s College Hospital!

Read more about Liz in this questionnaire.

Do you have any standout memories from your time at LHS?

Many many;

The First term was a struggle because I hadn’t been to Fairfield and I did really badly in the Christmas exams. It made me really determined to do well in the summer and I did, I got into the ‘A’ form, I’ve  thrived on competition ever since.

Hanging out of the windows in the physics prep lab with Marianne Hales (LHS 1983) to attract the attention of the boys on their tennis courts below. It was a wonder we didn’t fall out! I think those tennis courts are somewhere beneath the astro-turf hockey pitches now.

How did LHS help you personally and with your career?

Making valuable enduring life-long friendships.

Making me tenacious and determined.

Making me believe in myself and be ambitious.

Instilling a really good work ethic.

Are there any teachers in particular who inspired you?

Miss Todd and Mrs Pakes were excellent Biology and Chemistry teachers respectively. I was in Miss Todd’s first A level biology set and she also tutored me for Oxbridge.

Miss Rizzo who made me enjoy reading. I can still remember her reading Pride and Prejudice to us and making it fun.

What did you do after LHS?

After LHS I went straight to Medical School at Birmingham University, but stayed 6 years as I did an intercalated degree in Biochemistry in the middle.

School convinced my father I was capable of getting into medicine and even suggested I did Cambridge Entrance exams! Unfortunately I didn’t get into Cambridge, but I don’t really think that has negatively impacted on my career.

Can you explain your career path – how did you get to where you are today?

I always thought I may want to specialise in anaesthetics as I used to babysit for an anaesthetist while at LHS. She was fun and always socialising or playing tennis, hence the need for a babysitter. I really liked her and she also took me to Leicester Royal Infirmary for work experience and to meet the few female consultant colleagues she had. I think everyone needs a role model and she was the reason I ended up as an anaesthetist.

After Medical School I did my house jobs in Birmingham and then went pretty much immediately into anaesthesia as a senior house officer. I have always thought I got the job because the wife of one of the consultants on the interview panel had been to LHS! It was 1990, and as a girl in medicine you needed all the help you could get at that time.

I then proceeded to pass the three anaesthetic fellowship exams, and progressed through the ranks of registrar and senior registrar jobs at The Middlesex Hospital, The Royal Free Hospital, St George’s and Great Ormond Street Hospitals. I did a Fellowship in Adelaide Australia in Intensive Care Medicine and also Cardiac Anaesthesia.

The exams were tricky with a low pass rate and consisted of written and viva exams. The examiners could ask you about the first thing that came into their heads or grill you on their niche research interest. After the exams candidates assembled back at The College of Anaesthetists and the examination numbers of the successful candidates were read out and they were invited in for ‘sherry with the examiners’ , while the unsuccessful candidates had to slink away. I was quite lucky and always made it to the sherry…

It’s a lot more civilised these days, but my final fellowship exam was in 1994.

In 1998 I was eligible to apply for consultant posts after completing specialist anaesthetic training. I was lucky to get the third consultant job I applied for. This was after many pre-interview visits and the dreaded ‘Trial by Sherry’ when you were invited to evening drinks with the consultant body and other consultant candidates. Too much sherry would have resulted in immediate elimination and career suicide. The ‘Trial by Sherry’ has now been condemned to the history books. I do not think it would comply with today’s HR rules. I was appointed as a consultant at King’s College Hospital in 1998 aged 33. The department was mainly men and I was doing cardiac and paediatric anaesthesia with alpha male cardiac surgeons.

What are your career highlights?

Starting and developing The Anaesthetic and Intensive Care Department at The London Heart Hospital with several colleagues from the Middlesex Hospital in 2001 until our merger with Barts in 2015. We had 15 very happy and successful years there.

Developing a Cardiothoracic Anaesthetic Fellowship programme for anaesthetic trainees from around the world. This is now in its 22nd year and I am just flying back from one of the previous ‘fellow’s wedding in Dubai.

Being asked to join ‘W1 Anaesthesia’ in 2010. This is a prestigious private practice group in central London.

What have you done outside of your career that you are most proud of?

I am proud of my property renovation projects, which have featured in magazines or have been shortlisted for architectural awards.

I have run five marathons.

I have given cardiac anaesthetics in both Cairo and Iran which was challenging! It’s good for your confidence to work outside your comfort zone on occasions.

I was told by various male consultants when I was a senior registrar that I would never make it in cardiac anaesthesia and I should get a general anaesthetic job in a District Hospital and have a baby. That made me even more determined to succeed in my chosen sub-specialty.

Do you have any advice or wisdom to share?

I wish my younger self had realised what a fantastic rounded education I was getting at LHS. The school really did set me up for life and gave me so much confidence. I don’t think we appreciated how forward-thinking and empowering it was for girls in the 1970’s and early 80’s. I think about school with gratitude almost every day!

Don’t be perturbed if people tell you you won’t be able to do something. Use it to make you even more determined to prove them wrong.

People won’t always like you or be nice to you on the way up. Remember, you can’t be liked by everyone and those who are unpleasant are masking their own insecurities or jealousy. Don’t let them get you down! Just think it’s their problem not yours.

Be kind! Don’t lower yourself to the level of others. I’m a great believer in karma, and what goes around comes around. I’ve got lots of examples in my own career.

I still really enjoy my job, it’s a mixture of practical procedures, excitement, intellectual challenges, caring for patients and relatives, life and death situations with the inevitable emotions they engender, with the added drama of alpha personalities, especially amongst the surgeons. I always end up as the cabaret at a dinner party, telling the latest drama to friends with more corporate lives!

My life advice, therefore, is to do a job you enjoy and that is rewarding and satisfying. You spend a lot of time at work, therefore, it should be fun. I qualified in medicine 34 years ago and I have had a ball. I certainly wouldn’t have done anything differently and I still like going to work every day. I consider myself extremely lucky and really am grateful to all the staff from my time at LHS (1976-83). They gave me such a great start in life. As I finish this I am ‘acting down’ as a registrar to cover the first day of the junior doctors strike. This makes me a bit sad.

Who is your woman of the week?

My woman of the week is Professor Jane Sommerville, a pioneering female cardiologist who is the founder of the specialty of Grown up Congenial Heart Disease. She actually went to Queen Mary’s Harley Street and then Guys Medical School, but she would have fitted in well at The High School! She is an enormous personality, has succeeded in a male world against all odds and gained international recognition. We are great friends and she has been a big supporter of mine over the last 20 years.