Working life: Updating the Gladstone bag

Published on: 7 Jul 2023

Dr Catherine Fernando describes working as a GP, while also designing a collection of medical bags to suit the needs of women working in general practice.

Dr Catherine Fernando


I make a cup of tea and tiptoe upstairs to my study so I won’t wake anyone. This is my favourite part of the day as it’s the only time I get to spend alone with my thoughts. I’m working on a blog for the website of my company, Iyasu Medical Bags. I founded Iyasu after being unable to find a suitable work bag; the iconic Gladstone bag was designed in the 19th century when only men were allowed to practise medicine, and doctors’ bags have remained masculine in style. I also found that most of them were lacking in pockets. 

Female medical students now outnumber male, and women also predominate in general practice, so I wanted to design a collection that appealed to women and provided the necessary functions for our profession. After three years of testing designs, I launched Iyasu this year. There are six designs in a range of colours, each named after an inspirational woman in medicine.


My eldest children reluctantly roll out of bed. Now that they’re at secondary school, they have to catch an early bus from rural East Lothian to Edinburgh. We trudge to the bus stop, revising German vocabulary. Then I wake my two daughters, who are still at primary school. There are plaits to braid, a lost sock to find, and a hockey stick and clarinet to remember.


I arrive at the local practice, where I work four sessions a week as a salaried GP. I’m using the Patricia bag today, which is named after Dr Patricia Bath (1942-2019), an ophthalmologist whose lifetime work restored or improved the vision of millions of patients. It’s a plum-coloured backpack with a network of pockets for medical equipment, from pulse oximeters to blood tubes. There is also a secret pocket at the back for personal items such as lipsticks and tampons.  


Morning surgery brings the ever-unique mix of challenges. Among them is a mum concerned about her 14-year-old daughter who has an eating disorder; an elderly gentleman with a dark, irregular lesion on his back; and a chubby, breathless three-year-old boy with viral wheeze. 

My last patient before coffee is a young lady with persistent cervical lymphadenopathy. I try not to over-investigate. But it’s hard to not see myself in her and I recall my personal experience of being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a 22-year-old junior doctor.


At lunchtime, I take a walk along the riverside. I eat my sandwiches on a bench while scanning my business emails. I’m constantly looking for eco-friendly textiles, as carbon footprint is important to me. That’s why our bags are constructed with recycled plastic bottles. While we use post-consumer high-quality vegan leather for the trimmings, I’d like to one day use entirely plant-based vegan leather.  


This afternoon I’m teaching a medical student. She sits beside me, fascinated by the variety of presentations and symptoms GPs deal with. She’s enthusiastic and asks intelligent questions. My mind drifts to girls in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan. They are just as bright and motivated but are denied the right to secondary education, let alone degrees. I have pledged 5% of the profits from Iyasu to charities that support girls’ education. Empowering girls helps to reduce child marriage, cut infant mortality and improve economic stability. I realise how lucky I am, and I want to give back.


My husband arrives home from a conference, but  there’s little time for relaxation as there is homework to supervise and school uniforms to get ready. But when I snuggle up with my children to read bedtime stories and say prayers, I know the hard work is worth it. We are helping them fulfil their potential – and one day, they too will make the world a better place. 

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