Hi everyone! My name is Ellie and I have just finished year 11 with the hope to study medicine. You may recognise me as one of the Education Officers on the VMS committee, a position that seemed so out of reach just a few months ago. I want to talk to you about how I have gotten to where I am now with the hope that this will provide you with some guidance through difficult situations that you may face. If anyone has any questions or contributions, please drop them in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply!
Growing up I was a dancer and runner and therefore prone to injuries! However, around 4 years ago I had a congenital knee abnormality operated upon but complications left me unable to walk. I developed a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) that amplifies pain signals between the body and the brain. My symptoms began as temperature changes and a ‘giraffe print’ discoloration on my leg, which about a year later developed into allodynia, otherwise known as hypersensitivity. I was unable to have anything touching my leg (trousers, shoes, socks, bed linen) and even a gust of wind was torturous. In 2018 I was admitted to hospital with a dangerously swollen leg after having a muscle spasm for over 48 hours. In this admission, physios began to teach me how to put my foot on the floor and put a sock on (which initially began as a 20-minute task in which I would only have the confidence to put the sock around my toes for less than a second!). In this time, my ankle turned into what is medically known as an ‘equinovarus deformity’. Due to the pain of anyone touching my leg, the contracture couldn’t be examined until a year later at which point my muscles, tendons and bones had changed shape – even under a general anaesthetic, a surgeon couldn’t manipulate my foot back! I underwent 14 operations, botox injections, MRIs, tendon releases, nerve blocks and around 42 weeks of casts in the space of a year yet my ankle did not cooperate. Eventually, it had to be reconstructed and in May 2020, I was finally able to see it straight. Things have only been going up from there and I have replaced the 4 wheels of my wheelchair with the 2 wheels of my bike!
When writing, I debated sharing my story in such depth (usually when being asked, I often say I got trod on by an alpaca and broke my ankle…!) however I feel it is important for you to acknowledge that you can still do well in tough situations, no matter what they may be!
This brings me on to my first piece of advice: online learning! Whether you are a student trying to retain information, a parent teaching their kids an impossible piece of schoolwork or a teacher who is doing their best to ensure their students are learning the right things, this huge change has affected so many. For me, since March 2017, I have been unable to attend school full time and at my worst, was in for an hour each day (I was so devastated at missing a heart dissection that my mum bought me a heart from the local butchers for my 16th birthday!). This meant that I had to learn how to teach myself, how to stay motivated and the hardest one of all, when to stop learning! I thought it may be good to share some of my biggest tips!
- Create a timetable. Not just for 5 days but the 7 days of the week. Split this timetable into hourly slots and dedicate a colour to each aspect of your life (school, volunteering, extracurricular, downtime etc). In the slots, put things in that are pre-arranged (for me this was things like appointments but you may find it to be something like a sports or music lesson). Now write down everything else that you know needs to be done in the week. Place these things into the timetable, allowing for natural breaks like lunch and ensuring you have an adequate amount of ‘downtime’. I often struggle with feeling like I have so much to do but no time to do it but with this method, I can visually see that I am going to get everything done.
- Stick to a routine. Simple things like waking up, eating and going to sleep at the same time each day and doing regular activity are really important. I often find that if I have had a rough pain day that going outside makes everything feel ‘lighter’.
- Stay in touch with your teachers. Knowing you have your teachers behind you in an overwhelming time is really important. I used to send out emails to all my teachers asking them what they were planning to cover in class over a half term. This meant I was able to stay up to date and get ahead with things so that if I was to flare, I didn’t fall behind. It’s also really lovely to get messages from teachers – they are human at the end of the day and believe it or not, they like to hear from us too (mostly!).
Another thing that has become a worry for our population is the loss of contact with the ‘outside world’. Especially during stints in hospital, I was often cocooned in a safe bubble and the outside world seemed so distant. I remember returning back after one of my operations and a fight had occurred in my school. Everyone was talking about what had happened and I felt so overwhelmed with the amount of information being thrown at me in such a short space of time. We can look at this in a similar way to the volume of news reports being published around COVID-19. I always found that distancing myself was of great benefit – work out your priorities (for me this was getting better, for you, this may be your UCAT prep) and learn to abide by them.
And this brings me on to my last point. How can you make sure that whatever challenge you’re facing in life doesn’t put you at a disadvantage when it comes to applying to medicine/veterinary/dentistry (or whatever you are aiming high for!)? Well, for me, this was potentially one of my biggest worries. Conversations with myself often went like this:
“I’m so tired, and in so much pain. I should leave this piece of work and get an early night. I can do it tomorrow.”
“Ah but what if this piece of work is the one that gets you that A* at A-Level and gets you into Med School?”
And I’m sure many of you have had similar conversations with yourselves! I was (and still have times when I am) convinced that because I didn’t do that extra bit of revision that I would not get into med school!
My biggest tip? *Listen to those that are closest to you.* My mum was often the one to tell me that it was okay to stop working. I am now learning to adopt this technique into my own toolbox – to be in control and not let my brain make assumptions just because I am putting my wellbeing first. Trust me, it’s difficult and frustrating but it is a skill that I know will help me (and you!) in all aspects of life, especially in a medical career.
So it’s worth concluding. Where am I now after facing these challenges? Well, here is a list of some of the things I’ve managed to achieve –
- I’ve just left secondary school after being Head Girl
- I took my GCSE maths a year early achieving a grade 9
- I am re-learning how to run and starting back up with tap lessons
- I am tutoring younger students
- I am volunteering at a centre for children with neurological diseases.
Alongside everything at Medic Mentor! And the point of that list of activities? To show you it is possible! I was Head Girl on a part-time timetable, I took my GCSE maths a year early having been in relatively no lessons, I am re-learning how to run and dance on a leg that has and still is causing me a lot of pain, I am tutoring subjects that I taught to myself, I am volunteering to help children with conditions like mine and I am working alongside an incredible team at Medic Mentor. Life throws challenges and curveballs at the most unexpected times but this challenge has shown me that anyone has the power to deal with difficult situations.
So, listen to advice, reflect and most importantly, look after yourself. If you take anything from this, know that it is possible to do (pretty much) anything you want.
And everything will be okay.
Written By Eleanor Martin