When the Scotland women's hockey team arrive in Delhi for the Commonwealth Games – it is no longer "if", following health-and-safety guarantees from the Indian government – it will, nonetheless, be comforting to know as they settle in to their accommodation that there is a doctor in their midst. The goalkeeper Abi Walker is a qualified surgeon.
Astonishingly, should anyone ask "Is there a doctor in the house?" at the family home in Glasgow, half a dozen hands would shoot up. Walker's two brothers and two sisters are doctors and their mother, Isabel, is a retired professor of haematology. The odd one out is father Colin, a former professor of engineering. Walker's eldest brother, Jason, 41, is a radiologist; sister Nicky, 38, a cardiologist; brother Lewis, 35, and sister Emily, 32, are anaesthetists.
"Although medicine has run in the family for four generations, none of us were under pressure to do it," Walker says. "It just worked out that way. As the youngest [she is 28] I was the last to go into the profession but my parents said I could do what I wanted. All I had to do was promise to do something that would hold my interest. Medicine was something I could imagine myself doing in 40 years' time. I had mulled over a few other ideas, including PE teaching and sports coaching, but I didn't think that would interest me for more than a couple of years."
She qualified as a doctor in 2006, became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons a year ago and is now a plastic surgeon at St George's Hospital in south London, working mainly on facial reconstruction. She has also practised as a brain surgeon and an ear, nose and throat specialist. "I am on what they call a basic surgical training scheme, but my feeling is that I will end up on ear, nose and throat."
As a surgeon her hands are her livelihood, so does Walker worry they could be damaged when stopping shots or being trampled on? "I'd be lying if I said that doesn't cross my mind. You get a fright now and again when you remind yourself how fine the line is between making a save and getting yourself in a tangle. Fortunately the goalkeeping equipment has got so much better in the last 10 years. My kit manufacturer, Obo, have developed high-density foam for pads and gloves that are much, much safer."
Almost casually she mentions that she has had her head split open "a few times", prompting the thought that she might have required the services of her surgical colleagues. "Fortunately not yet," she laughs. Her worst injury came in training with the men's squad, one of whom hammered the ball towards her. "I wondered how to get out of the way – it was like trying to dodge a bullet. It cracked me on the side of the head, splitting open the helmet, and cut me across the eye." Did she receive stitches? "I think I was glued up."
Walker's inspiration for hockey came from sister Nicky, who played for Scotland's Under-21s. She has almost always been a goalkeeper. "I think this may have come from kicking around at football with my brothers. They usually put me in goal."
She manages to combine her medical career and hockey training, working three days a week at hospital – often on call at nights – and training two days a week with the national squad programme as well as evenings with her club, Canterbury. The Games will see her win her 50th cap. She has also 14 caps for Great Britain, for whom she is the second-string goalkeeper. "Beth Storry, the England keeper, is No 1 at the moment and is playing fantastically well, but it's all about competition and I'd love to be part of the squad for 2012."
Walker is due to leave with the Scottish team today and, as things stand, she might wonder if she will be required for her medical expertise. She is optimistic. "I've heard the horror stories but I don't think there has been a Commonwealth Games that has gone off without a hitch. I am sure it will be absolutely fine in the end."Reuse content