As a deafblind teenager, I was incredibly shy, lacking in confidence, and not particularly independent – wholesomely introverted you could say. I was so terrified about how the world would judge me for what I couldn’t see and what I couldn’t hear and what I’d look like if I had to ask for help or take longer to work things out – so the simplest and easiestway out was to not do any of these things in the first place. On one hand, I was comfortably sociable and passionate when it came to things such as public speaking, weirdly, having had to do a lot of this whilst I was a full-time competitive swimmer on the GB Team, training for Paralympic participation in 2012. I collaborated with sports stars such as Dame Kelly Holmes and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, and provided role-modelling to young disabled people getting into sport. On the other extreme, I wouldn’t even enter a shop alone, for fear that I’d have to ask someone for assistance. I had never taken a bus on my own in my life and if I didn’t know the way somewhere, I’d avoid it altogether.
That all changed in the summer of 2012. My dreams of Paralympic participation had long gone, after having to spend more than a year bedridden in hospital following a string of botched stomach surgeries that damaged the vagus nerve and required placement of 2 permanent feeding tubes. Swimming career dream aside, I went on to focusing on my next goal – getting into medical school. For those of you who have been through the process, or know of someone that has, we know too well that getting accepted into a medical school institution is a notoriously hard, stressful, emotionally frustrating and stomach-churning process. Be an A* student top to toe but without theunique angle of extra-curricular interests, you won’t get in. Be someone with a pudding of flamboyant extra-curricular interests, be it a top musician or sportsperson, but don’t quite make that grade, then you’re still not in. It’s a situation impossible to win. But what does guarantee you a far better chance in the medical school selection process is work experience.
Like the majority of other students, I struggled to grasp any concrete experience in the healthcare environment. I had volunteered in children’s’ hospices, surgical wards, been on the other side of the bed (not voluntarily, may I point out), but to actually shadow a doctor, and see medicine, was like a dinner fight – and I was never going to win it. So when I set eyes on an opportunity to go abroad to a third-world country and get a taste of medicine there, my inner-wanderlust suddenly sparked the first time. This, at that time, couldn’t seem more ridiculous to everyone around me – a blind person? Traveling abroad on their own? Utter stupidity. But to me, opportunities beamed before me. For those of you who have read my previous blog posts and got to know a bit about me, you’ll likely be right in thinking what I did next. If someone says ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ – I do the exact opposite…I bit the bullet and clicked the ‘Purchase Tickets’ button on the Emirates flights page. Boom. I was off to Africa.
How I was getting on to a plane alone, when I hadn’t even taken a bus by myself before, I really do not know. But the sinking feeling didn’t hit me until the morning my parents dropped me off at the airport. In situations where you just want to run away, but youcan’t, perhaps because you’ve spent a large chunk of your precious savings on some flights, for instance, are actually the best situations to put yourself in to involuntarily push you past your own limits. This was by far the best thing I ever did, as it truly stemmed the growth of my newfound independence and confidence – I would come back with a new skin.
I was to be based in Tanzania for a fortnight. The heat of the dust hit me, this land a strange Martian landscape yet brimming with a buoyant zest of bustling people, and bananas…lots of them. But inside the hospital was a sickening eyesore. Rats skittled the theatre floors, women screaming out in wards crammed with three times more beds than they were designed to accommodate. The smell of sweating flesh mingled still in the stifling heat, absent of air-conditioning, and dried blood, catheter bags and drip bottles swathed the stone floors. The doctors couldn’t do enough. Maybe because they had never seen a healthcare system outside of this country? They grinned and babbled, eager to show us to their patients and feed us with knowledge – it was a huge learning curve, in many different ways, from many different angles.
The doctors knew of my disabilities, but were so, so willing to include me, and open the world up to my distant eyes – I was eternally thankful for that. But when one doctor called me over asking if I wanted to assist in a circumcision procedure, I was unsure what to expect. Oblivious to the real meaning of this procedure, having naively neverheard of this before, I went ahead to scrub in – hair net, mask, gloves. It wasn’t until I walked over to a 40 year old gentleman lying supine, and barely clothed, that I realised what I was up against. I was indeed about to operate on a man’s genitalia. Blind. Now, had I known, in the shoes of now a well-established medical student, I would of course not volunteered to do this, but this seemed to be far too great a learning experience to decline. To my disbelief, the surgeon handed me over the scalpel and scissors and guided me with verbal instructions through the entire procedure. Some other students were also performing circumcisions on other patients on the other side of the room, only, the distance between their face and the patient’s private parts were arms width, whilst mine, were only inches away from ‘it’, carefully tying the stitches and suturing the foreskin. Calmly and coolly. Afterwards, the surgeon looked at me with sparkling eyes. He complimented my skilfully calm hand and asked me to carry out a further 4 circumcisions. The blind surgeon shall no longer be a mutually exclusive title, I thought to myself.
I walked away from the General Surgery room, heading down a slight incline, a route I had taken numerous times before over the past week of placement. I noticed I had developed a limp, but absent from any pain as such. I looked down to discover I was wearing two completely different shoes. One had a noticeable heel whilst the other was a flat pump. One was blue and the other black, and whilst one had a bow, the other waslaced with a simple frill round its edges. Fact is, I had been wearing these shoes for 6 whole days now and neither I, nor anybody else around me, had noticed. Had that been because they genuinely hadn’t noticed, or rather because they were afraid to offend me of my poor-sighted mistake, I concluded it was likely the latter and went on to point out to practically everyone my ‘hilarious’ shoe mistake. No big deal. I would simply swap over shoes when I returned to my room later that day. Only, these turned out to be the only shoes I had brought out to Africa with me. I had no choice but to wear this odd pair for the rest of my stay, unless I’d prefer to fork out on a pair of 50p clogs. What a rather humiliating is-shoe to be faced with…
The weekends were for downtime away from the hospital. It gave me a new perspective, a breathing space to cautiously explore undiscovered territory, upping my confidence and independence bit by bit, like the returning pinkness in a patient’s pallor. Now it would be rude not to experience a safari whilst out in Africa, so, along with a small group of other pre-med students, we headed to a safari park for the weekend, where we were to stay in individual cottages on the edge of the park. The entire site was run entirely off of solar energy, meaning no charging cables or artificial light in the evenings. This made otherwise simple daily tasks rather interesting for someone who was night-blind like me. Eating over candle-light was the equivalent to ‘date in the dark’, though sadly without the date, stabbing my fork into an empty plate. I was amused to see that, having realised each cottage was named after an animal native to the park, mine was called ‘Dik Dik’ cottage. I quickly saw a theme evolving during my medical placement…
It was surprising as to how quickly my overall trip went. I had learnt a lot, and with the knowledge and experiences like no other that I had gained, so grew my confidence. My last day in Iringa was cut short, due to my flights leaving a little earlier than most others. This meant that I was unable to take the 9-hour drive back on the coach with the rest of the group, but had been offered to join one of the programme managers in his personal car whilst he took his brothers to the airport. I kindly took on the offer and embarked on the 9-hour journey through desert and sand with the staff member and his 3 brothers. It perhaps wasn’t until I was 4 hours into the journey that it suddenly occurred to me that Iwas indeed in the African wilderness, in a jeep, with 3 men I barely knew. Don’t think about it. But then, we ground to a stop. Strange. One of the brothers, sat in front, stepped outside of the car and walked a few paces forward, and stopped. From where I was sat, it looked as though he was admiring the beautiful scenery ahead of him. After all, we were surrounded by endless plains of sand, dirt, and dirt-track. And I say beautiful, well I couldn’t see a thing, in reality, could I? I broke the silence, adding in my own version of compliment on how wonderful the view was. The other two brothers looked at me rather oddly. I continued to stare outside, mainly on the other brother, whom was still staring out into the distance. But my eyes wandered off, nystagmus on a hype, spotting a couple of lone zebra dotted on the horizon. A figure jumped into my central field, in a hopping-like motion, though to me, nothing more than a fuzzy dot springing up and down. Having looked up the background of dik-diks, apparently a small kangaroo-like species, I followed with an exclamation: “Look! A dik dik!” The brothers looked back at me with a glare of further oddity. Meanwhile, the other brotherzipped up his trousers and walked back to the car. Oh crumbs. You can see how my animal misinterpretation could’ve also been heavily…misinterpreted.
After our first little ‘pit-stop’, I too soon needed to relieve myself for the hideously bumpy dirt-roads were taken its toll on my fragile bladder. The next ‘service-station’ was another 2 hours away. I had hoped I could grab a quick bite to eat en-route too. 2 hours later, we had arrived – the ‘service-station’ was no more than a lorry park, of perhaps no more than 3 lorries, a small watering hole, and a basketful of bruised fruit balancing against the stump of a grey, dried-out shrub. The programme manager lead me towards a gate, with four rusty bars lined vertically across it. The toilet – a hole dug out in the red soil, gave way to a view of the rest of the lorry park, providing no shade of privacywhatsoever. I truly couldn’t care, I hurt so much. Once in the squatting position, it took me a good 5 minutes to relax and finally ease myself. But, just at that very moment of going, my driver called out to me, “Alex!…Everything okay?” God. The sheer fright sent me urinating everywhere – all through my shorts, now a very dark blue colour, all up the soil bank, and not one drop in the designated hole. Charming. I proceeded to waddle out of the ‘bathroom’ towards the car, trying all effort to conceal the very large wet patch sloshing in my shorts. I’d have to sit like this until my arrival at Dar es Salaam airport.
I may’ve come away confirming that I did not want to be a urologist or any form of surgeon on one hand, but this trip had without doubt changed the way I approached the world. I returned to a far chillier UK with the view that I could laugh at my mistakes (which were of many), embrace the limitations of having little vision, but also that there really was nothing stopping me from doing things or going places, other than my own fear of self-consciousness and underestimation. On the contrary, I am now a heavily addicted globetrotter with an incessant thirst for wanderlust, and my bank balance is now regrettably having to pay for it. Until next time – a blog on my next globetrot, with the full intention of going even further.