After spending a good few hours mingling fruitlessly in and out of Brooklyn’s criss-cross avenues, the fog of Brownstone a frighteningly artistic contrast to the sky’s blues beyond, I eventually found yet another corner café where I could further sip away my afternoon, drowned in an infectiously comforting coffee.
It was my first full day in New York City – a destination I had admittedly not thought of much before hand, but had ventured out to on a last minute whim, in search of inspiration from a handful of practicing disabled doctors I had heard about, sights set proudly on breaking barriers and flourishing new career prospects. I had travelled to America solo, with just one suitcase and my long white cane, to see whether this city, where dreams come true, really was the place for inclusiveness, possibility, acceptance – a place where I would not be overlooked for being a deafblind young person, but to be helped to flourish, achieve and love life.
But it hadn’t been long until many an overheard conversation sent me wondering second-thoughts. It had appeared so, that not one single working local I had stumbled across, either in direct conversation or curious earshot, were fulfilling their busy daily schedules without a desperate visit to a top-recommended psychiatrist. I spent many an occasion sipping full bodies of good wine through the heat of dusty jazz, listening to fellow women no younger or older than I, laugh nervously over the crumbling purposes of their careers, shedding any last flakes of determination they once had at their doctor’s doorstep. True, the city that never sleeps brought great prospects to those who dreamed, but I quickly got the feeling that not one working lifestyle carried short the hanging weights of stifling stress and disintegrated wellbeing.
Perhaps, for me, it took a rather life-changing period this summer, one year later, to make me realise that there was far more importance to our wellbeing, than any lavish lifestyle, buzzing cityscape, or cliché dream, never mind a visit to the psychiatrist’s office. Without good mental health, wellbeing, happiness and function, free from bothersome fatigue and stress, where lies any point in trying to fulfil an everyday job, an everyday routine, aspiration, or dream? If our minds aren’t set rightly, and we’re only halfway in that desired zone, then we surely don’t have all the ingredients to make what we can truly give? Then how do we dream?…
Being told this by someone who had only ever given me disheartened grief and a holt in direction these past few weeks, it was nonetheless the best, most sensible piece of advice I had been taught to date. A medical student returning to placement after facing death upfront in the midst of a recent acute illness you’d think I’d had known better. But I was far too keen and determined to return to anything that bodied normality, too blind to see how my body and mind would do anything but cope. Only a few weeks earlier, I had just been discharged from a traumatic three-week stay on an Intensive Care Unit in Italy. But this was no placement. Thirteen days intubated, on a ventilator, septic and delirious, the prospects of me returning home, let alone back to studies, were scarily slim. My family were told to expect the worst and were urged to sign a wedge of foreign paperwork consenting for an emergency tracheostomy. Our worlds had quickly become nightmarishly fragile. When potent intravenous sedation was still not enough to curb my supposed agitation, the only alternative was to be struck out cold with a surgical anaesthetic gas, for four days, whilst typically it is not allowed for any longer than a few hours. Consequently, the liver and kidney numbers plummeted, lungs drowned in fluid and my blood pressure was the metaphorical equivalent to the sinking Titanic. The bedsheets burnt my skin, infection markers screaming, yet the source was a needle in a jungle. The hallucinations, an apparently common experience in longer-term ITU patients, sent me hanging off the edge of buildings for weeks, in plane crashes and packed up in tiny boxes. I had died and lived through a funeral, lights turned a deadly white, heavenly clinical, as confused medical staff scurried about. Paralytic and dysphonic. Right now, New York City was long-gone. Medicine was long-gone. Life was very much long-gone.
A month on, I have scarcely began the tedious road to recovery, and still, as I write this, my aspirations have been diluted to something somewhat more slow and weak. But, to put it bluntly, I was far from ready to take on any new challenges that I’d otherwise jumped at before. Studying medicine is one epic challenge, an almighty journey of discovery and breaking yet more and more limits as we advance through our studies and practice – after all, we are training to deal with people’s lives, and this takes epic responsibility. Add in a long-term health condition or disability in there, and then it becomes that and ten-fold, a daily ritual of longingly questioning whether it is all really worth it or not. That was my tenth ITU admission and I still somehow manage to learn the hard way. I’m not one for sitting around and waiting for others to do it for me – I embrace independence and the determination to steer on the body and mind within, but I have also learnt that looking after yourself, so that you can become the best you can be, is the kindest thing you can ever do for yourself. I have seen so many friends and colleagues alike slip and disintegrate through the thin bedraggled nets of an insecure support system, but denying your own limitations and keeping these from others surrounding you only leads to one fatal outcome after another.
I have thus personally found over the past few weeks that although somehow defying the odds of coming back to life’s routine full-stop may initially grant strength and ability, it has also granted me a premature foolishness. Just because we may be working in a vocation where we are most likely taking care of and healing others in some way, it doesn’t help in healing ourselves in the meantime. As part of my own cautious recovery, I met up with an Intensive Care Consultant over yet more coffee, to listen to her shed words of wisdom and her own inspirational story of acceptance and love. A lesson she often teaches her own two young daughters, at a time where Disney queens and princesses play their proud role models, outside of the working environment, of other human illness and suffering, she tells them continually to “have courage and be kind”. As a recipient of much discrimination in the workplace on a daily basis, this advice offers me a stronghold of resilience. But, it has also given me the stark reminder that being kind to yourself is the best thing you can ever do, so that achieving your dreams, just as Cinderella does, just as F1 and F2 doctors do, and just as the many young entrepreneurs of New York City do, can really come true.
This weekend, I took my first trip to the outdoors, strength-permitting, to the stunning Wye Valley, with the anchor and company of my family. I gazed beyond the blanket of beautiful woodland and winding rivers that stood before us and it was simply breathtaking. It has been a rather long while since I had the good health to do such thing, and for once an avid traveler, this was yet another big step in my recovery. From that moment, I could embrace the gracefully dying Autumn, but also embrace my new lease of life. The crisp air was gratefully received and good health was back in my own firm hands, reminding myself once again that our wellbeing and good health is the purest ingredient in helping achieve our dreams, if we work towards it wisely and responsibly. My transition back into full-time medical studies will only be gradual, just like the changing of the autumnal season, but to those who are patient it’ll all be more than worth it. So, take home this magical message, “have courage and be kind”, and look after yourself.