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Dr Dawn: 'I'm reminded on a daily basis that things can change quickly'

TV's Dr Dawn Harper talks to Gabrielle Fagan about the Embarrassing Bodies show, her divorce and helping people tackle taboo health problems

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Dr Dawn Harper

Dr Dawn Harper

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Dr Dawn with Embarrassing Bodies co-hosts Dr Pixie McKenna and Dr Christian Jessen

Dr Dawn with Embarrassing Bodies co-hosts Dr Pixie McKenna and Dr Christian Jessen

Dr Dawn Harper

Dr Dawn Harper is never surprised if people rush up to her in a supermarket or restaurant and ask, 'Do you mind if I show you this?' - before revealing a rash, lump or some other symptom they're worried about.

"It's just part of the job," she says. "Sometimes they'll come up and the T-shirt's up and the boob's out before they actually realise they're on the high street! But being a GP doesn't mean your work stops at the surgery door.

"If you mind that, then I think you're in the wrong profession," Harper adds. "Also, people feel they know me because they've seen me on TV."

The 57-year-old - who works in an NHS practice in Stroud, Gloucestershire - starred alongside fellow doctors Christian Jessen and Pixie McKenna in Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies for almost a decade. She's also appeared on This Morning, advised parents on Born Naughty, and is the author of 10 health guides.

"I'm very proud of Embarrassing Bodies. Its cheeky and lured you in with a bit of voyeurism, but also educated you along the way," she recalls.

"It brought medical matters to a lot of people who wouldn't normally have engaged, and I think it really helped people tackle issues which in some cases they'd worried about for years."

Embarrassment is still a big barrier though - and one 'taboo' problem Harper is determined to tackle is vaginal dryness in menopausal women.

She hopes to encourage women to get help for this "silent" menopause symptom, which can cause them to "give up on a sex life" and affect their relationships, as well as causing physical discomfort and impacting their self-confidence - but is actually easily treatable.

"It's very sad that millions of women go through this but can't speak about it," says Harper. "I could count on my hands the number of women who've come to me with vaginal dryness. If people aren't telling me, they're probably not telling anyone else. Too many people let embarrassment stand in the way of getting help."

Vaginal dryness is thought to affect around half of menopausal women, but unlike other symptoms, it doesn't go away once a woman has gone through 'the change'.

Dryness occurs because of falling oestrogen levels and symptoms can include a sore, itchy feeling around the vagina, pain or discomfort during sex, a need to urinate more often, and recurrent urinary tract infections.

Vaginal creams or pessaries containing hormones are often prescribed to relieve the discomfort of vaginal dryness. For women who cannot, or do not want to use hormones, hormone-free Vagisan MoistCream is an alternative, says Harper.

Here, she talks to us about coping as a doctor during the pandemic, surviving starvation and dehydration on a tropical island, and why cycling has become her fitness passion...

What's it been like working during the pandemic?

"Working as a GP has changed so much because of the restrictions and, of course, it can be a bit scary sometimes donning PPE to see someone who may have Covid-19," says Harper. "We've had patients die from it, and any death is upsetting and a tragedy for a family. Dealing with bereavement is a horrible part of the job, which doesn't get any easier.

"From a positive point of view, the new approach of video and telephone consultations has been good and will make us more efficient and more accessible to patients in the future. I've also been busy giving interviews as a TV doctor and I've done podcasts focusing on health issues, including the virus, which I hope has been helpful to people."

Do you enjoy working in the media?

"Being an NHS GP keeps me in touch with what's really worrying people, and working in TV and radio helps me reach more people, so for me it's a brilliant mix.

"I'd love Embarrassing Bodies to return. It's never been decommissioned, it's sort of sitting on a shelf in Channel 4, so you never know. One of the most rewarding aspects was seeing people whose whole demeanour and appearance had altered because they were free of the strain on their emotional wellbeing, of a problem which might not even have been that significant but was totally weighing them down."

What experience wouldn't you repeat?

"Taking part in Celebrity Island With Bear Grylls in 2016. It was horrendous and way tougher than it looked on screen. With no fresh water supply, no food unless we caught it, I rapidly felt dehydrated, starving, exhausted and dizzy. I hate camping and couldn't sleep at night because I thought every rustle was a snake or scorpion.

"Having said that, when celebrities call me to ask whether they should take part in reality shows like that, I always say, 'Go for it'. It was a unique opportunity to have no contact with the outside world, be free from technology and deadlines and really discover what I could cope with - so, unmissable but unrepeatable!"

What's got you through the tough times?

"In my job, I'm reminded on a daily basis that things can change very quickly and life can go belly up when you least expect it. So I've always believed in making the most of every day and not wasting time.

"Of course, I've had challenges - who hasn't? Mine have been having two of my children born prematurely, being involved in a serious road accident, which involved two years rehabilitation, and going through divorce, which was awful.

"I lost loads of weight, couldn't sleep and really struggled emotionally. You do get through things with time, and I think it makes you more empathetic to other people's problems when you've suffered yourself."

How do you look after your health?

"I was struck by a car in 2003 and my left knee was shattered. I was lucky not to be killed. My rehab started with learning to do one revolution on a static bike at the gym to help my leg to bend again. When I was able to manage that, I started cycling regularly.

"I'm a great believer in clouds and silver linings because cycling's turned into my passion, which I might never have discovered if it hadn't been for the accident. I now cycle up to 10 miles three or four times a week, and I've taken part in charity cycle rides to Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels."

How do you look after your wellbeing?

"I've always been a quite positive person - the glass is always half full not half empty for me. I'm quite driven, so I enjoy being busy and I don't brood on things.

"One outcome of lockdown that my partner Jack and I have enjoyed, is going through our address books every weekend and contacting friends we've lost touch with, or people we know who live alone. The situation really makes you value that contact with people and realise how good it is to talk, and how silly it is to let time go by.

"Even though I love fashion and glamour, I'm a country girl and love pottering around in my jeans and a long walk with my dogs. Every now and then, I have to tell myself to slow down and prioritise.

"I follow the advice I give my patients... write down the things which are stressing you out, and work out the ones you can tackle and the ones you can't do anything about. It usually works."

Dr Dawn Harper is an NHS GP and TV doctor working to break taboos around 'silent' menopause symptoms, and is encouraging women to get help with easily treatable conditions such as vaginal dryness. For more info, visit vagisan.com/en-gb/symptoms/vaginal-dryness

Belfast Telegraph