I have what has been described as a ‘portfolio career’ - I’m not really sure what that means but I’d describe it as incredibly fortunate, privileged and ‘accidentally interesting’ perhaps.
I knew from the 4th year at medical school during our underwhelming 2-week public health module that I wanted to travel and work overseas in developing countries. At that time I had no idea how, where or when but the seed had been planted.
After completing my VTS and locuming for a year or so I headed off to Tobago for a few months as a volunteer with an environmental NGO called Coral Cay Conservation. I was the medical officer for a group of divers surveying the coral reefs around the island. This involved very little medicine but a lot of interesting project development roles and most importantly masses of diving (twice a day often) and a lot of rum consumption and beach parties. By this point I officially had the travel-bug.
From this island idyll I headed off to Uganda for a more serious role; volunteering for 2 years with a charity called Hospice Africa Uganda where I was the palliative care “consultant” for a rural hospice covering a vast geographical area including parts of the DRC, Tanzania & Rwanda as well as IDPs and swathes of remote south-western Uganda. I could go on forever about this job but now is not the time, if you are interested in hearing more about the work we did & my experiences there please don’t hesitate to contact me. I think this was the most formative and life-changing role I have ever done.
On the back of that I returned to the UK to do a masters in ‘public health in developing countries’ at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It was a tough year & we worked our butts off but I was amongst a fascinating and inspirational bunch (I think over 25 different countries were represented by the group) and the standard and content of the teaching and lectures was outstanding. I am still in-touch with many of these people and use their knowledge and contacts on a regular basis to help me out with all sorts of things.
Having the MPH has given me an entirely different perspective on medicine and I have used this in a number of different ways; in Cameroon I worked alongside Hospice Africa France developing and delivering the first African multi-disciplinary francophone palliative care course and then travelling around Cameroon following-up on some of the course students and helping them to advocate (in French!) for the development of a palliative care service in their setting, writing proposals and plans and lobbying the great and powerful. I also joined a THET palliative care mentoring project lead by Edinburgh University which took me to Zambia, I nearly visited Burkina Faso last year but was thwarted at the last minute by a coup and I have continued to visit Uganda to assist with the francophone course which is held there annually now.
I became a partner recently at a busy, deprived and very ethnically diverse practise in Pitsmoor, which may suggest that my wayward travelling days are over. Not so. I am fortunate enough to work with people who support my voluntary work and appreciate how important it is to me; in 2016 I am hoping to go to Bangladesh for 3 weeks with GP Update International and UNHCR to provide primary care teaching to medical staff in the refugee camps, as well as another trip to Uganda.
Volunteering is worthwhile and provides great opportunities and experiences but it is not kind to the bank balance, having a stable job here in the UK means that I can afford to continue with some of this work as well as developing my skills and fulfilling my ongoing educational needs as a UK GP. And in my spare time I try to stay in touch with as many of the people I have worked with, taught, mentored or visited in order to give continued support and encouragement. I provide medico-legal reports for a charity that do advocacy-work for asylum seekers. I’m a GP trainer. I am a respite foster carer. I’m a very fortunate GP.
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My journey here isn’t what you might call typical. I am 10 years older than most of the other students in my year. “That‘s practically a whole generation!” as one of my non-medic friends so kindly put it.
I didn’t choose to do chemistry A-Level when I selected my choices aged 16. I don’t think I had ever really considered a career in medicine at that time. It was only on my gap year, teaching English to under-privileged primary school children in Thailand that I began to think that was what I wanted to do.
My parents dutifully researched Medicine courses back in England but found that without chemistry A-Level there was really no way in. So I opted to go ahead with my plan to study Applied Communications at Newcastle University. I couldn’t possibly delay university by another two years to gain the all-important chemistry A-Level – I’d be ancient by the time I started if I did that! Little did I know…
I went on to have the best three years of my life in Newcastle and gained a first class degree for my efforts. I spent a year working in marketing in Australia following my degree and got a place on the BT Global Services graduate scheme on my return.
I was working in Internal Communications in London – I had a good job with great prospects. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life. What was I doing that was actually helping people? Was I really making a difference?
It was a throw-away comment from a friend of a friend that made me realise that re-training was an option. As stupid as it sounds retraining was a possibility!
I was accepted at Sheffield to the six-year pre-med course. This gives people without a science background the opportunity to study medicine by teaching all the chemistry, biology and physics you need in a pre-medical year at the start. For me this was ideal – it gave me a whole year to remember how to learn, revise and sit exams again.
I am now entering my fourth year as a student doctor. It hasn’t been easy – my mind isn’t as sponge-like as the younger students! However, what I lack in memory I make up for with enthusiasm. Every day I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity. I am making the most of every chance to learn and I know that this is my calling. I also feel being a little older gives me an advantage when it comes to relating to patients, consultants, nurses and well, everyone really.
Don’t get me wrong, it is hard not having a salary as all your friends outside medicine ascend through the ranks. And the pressure of juggling a family with work is looming almost as soon as I finish my foundation training. But, I absolutely love medicine and the challenges, variety and opportunities it presents and there isn’t anything I would rather be doing.
If I were to say that I had always known that I wanted to study medicine, and in particular haematology, then I would not be telling the truth. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to study after school and had it not been for a brilliant female biology teacher, I don’t think my career would have gone down the path it has. The school I attended was a state school and I always remember being told to be “realistic” by a careers advisor when I said I wanted to study science at university. I wish he could see me now. Against advice I submitted an application to study Applied Biology at Newcastle University and to my shock I was successful. I received a first class degree with honours in 2008.
During my undergraduate degree I loved the research side of science and once I completed the degree I noticed an advertisement for a PhD studentship in Newcastle University funded by Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research (LLR). One thing I have not mentioned is that growing up I knew a few people who had leukaemia, some of whom did not survive. Leukaemia has therefore always been in my thoughts and I felt an overwhelming need to apply for the position. I am thankful every day that I was successful, and my female supervisor was to become one of the key role models in my future.
I started my 4-year PhD studentship in 2008 and continued to work as a post-doc for the LLR until 2013. My PhD research was concerned with investigating potential mechanisms by which therapy related leukaemia’s arise in order to reduce and/or prevent patients from developing leukaemia as a side effect of treatment for a primary disease. I was often asked what did I do in a ‘typical’ day and I always responded in the same way - “typical days do not exist in research”. Working in research consists of long days but never (in my opinion) tedious as there is always so much to do. Firstly, devising which experiments to do in which order in conjunction with my supervisors and fellow scientists is crucial. The length of time these experiments take can be anywhere between days and months. As well as devising and conducting experiments, the methods and results must be written up in the following formats; lab books so you or anyone can repeat your experiment in the future, PhD thesis so your work can be assessed by experts in the field, manuscripts for publication so the work that you and your fellow scientists have done can be published and shared with experts in the field around the world.
During my time in research I also attended and presented work at conferences, which are a hub of information and are always vital in discussing new and evolving research and treatments in the field of haematology. To date I have published two papers with my research group and we are still working on publishing other data from my PhD thesis. One of these papers was a collaboration with Professor Janet Rowley’s group in Chicago, another amazing role model of mine who sadly passed away in 2013. Although the majority of my time in research was spent in the laboratory conducting experiments, I also spent time on the Haematology wards at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. The first thing that shocked me was the vast age range of patients on the ward and I was fortunate enough to be asked to follow a patients treatment and progress during my time on the ward and beyond. I was also struck by the necessity of working as a team between the academic and clinical professions of haematology, for example the type of leukaemia a patient has is determined by scientists in the lab and the results are passed to the medical teams to devise treatment protocols for each patient.
Throughout my PhD I was struck by how much I loved conducting research and also communicating with patients. I therefore decided to apply to study medicine with the aim of working as a clinical researcher, hopefully for the LLR! I was accepted to study medicine by the University of Sheffield in 2013. The hardest decision to make when accepting my offer to study medicine was leaving the LLR after 5 years….but hopefully it will be temporary! I am now in my third year of medicine and therefore completed the “academic” phase of the course and I am now moving into the “clinical” phase, which is mainly rotating around departments in different hospitals. I thought that as a mature student I would be the only older student on the course. I think there are roughly 30 mature/post-grad students in my year so that has helped me to not feel so old! Studying medicine is hard work, there is no getting away from that. You definitely have to have an interest in the subject as there is A LOT of reading. If I am honest, by the end of second year I was starting to forget why I was doing medicine as I just felt like I lived in a lecture theatre. But now I am in third year it all makes sense and I am putting into practice everything we have been taught. I love being in the hospitals, learning more about creating differential diagnosis and treatment plans as well as actually getting to know some of the patients. Some days are tough but most days are great and I can’t think of any other career I would rather be doing! However, there is never a greater satisfaction or a more humbling experience than attending and participating in events to raise funds for the LLR and meeting the patients who have been affected or are currently affected by a haematological malignancy. Their strength and determination is infectious and continuously helps me to focus on the reasons I want to do the job that I do!
On a personal level I have also started going to local state schools and talking to young students about my research and studying medicine in order to encourage young people to consider career paths that I certainly did not consider at my school. The most common response is that they had never considered science as a career path until either me or me and a team of fellow scientists had gone in to talk to them about research and medicine. I am also a student mentor for the SOAMS programme at Sheffield which is a great way to answer any concerns that students thinking about studying medicine have prior to applying. In summary, the advice I give to students is don’t panic if you haven’t got your life mapped out after school. Also if there is a career you want to do then don’t give up on it if a few hurdles are put in the way. It will just make it more worth it when you do get there. Having role models is vital and I have been lucky to have the most amazing role model from birth, my mother. Keep in mind why you are doing what you are doing and always have the self-belief that you will succeed, no matter how long it takes!