How to be a Superhero

As healthcare staff, we’re not in the job to save the world, just so that we can become superheroes.  Nor do we want to be seen as superheroes every time we save the world.  In fact, most of us aren’t even on that quest to save the world – nor save lives, incidentally enough. We’re in the job because we want to make people, our patients, happy and healthy.  It’s just our human nature.

To be a superhero then, we need a superpower.  A superpower, in boring corporate terms, are the professional and personal qualities we update on our Curriculum Vitae each year.  But there are other, far more ordinary superpowers, that we don’t necessarily think of as superpowers.  That superpower could be being a good storyteller – having the ability to draw in a thousand ears to the pinnacle of your silent tale.  That superpower could be your ability to bribe the pet cat to come indoors after its 7 hour mission to closely guard the dead bird in the corner of your back garden.  It could be your ability to maintain a desperate willpower, not to give in at ignoring the bar of chocolate left out on the kitchen worktop.  On the contrary, I know my superpower is eating that chocolate.  Lots of it

But seriously though, this got me thinking about a little boy I met, quite recently, during my commute on the London Underground.  I was tired, hot and bothered, having just completed 4 days of running around to and from conferences, and now I was finally heading back home with a 20kg suitcase, 2 metal roller banners, a camera bag and my white cane, when I was, by chance, sat next to Tim.  He suddenly announced, to his Mother and the rest of the train carriage, that he desired to become a Doctor when he grew up.  Only, his Mother laughed back, jokingly, telling him:  “But Tim, you won’t be able to hear all the poorly people”.  I watched his small frame sink down into the chair, bottom lip stuck out onto his chest, his imaginary superhero cape disintegrating with disappointment, bit by bit. 

As a deafblind medical student, I have become used to being told I can’t do things, just because of my disabilities.  I was discouraged, time and time again, from applying to Medical School, because it would be too difficult for a deafblind person like me.  So I applied.  I was told I was utterly foolish to step foot outdoors on my own, in fear I would get lost or run over.  So I travelled the world solo.  To America, Asia, Europe and Africa.  Since my diagnosis of a progressive Mitochondrial Myopathy last year, I have been repeatedly told not to go out walking too far, for fear of overexerting myself and ending up back in Intensive Care, despite having competed in 2 international sports on the Great Britain Team years before.  So now I take the occasional stroll to the park.  No more, no less.  And just the other day I was asked whether Medicine was really for me, by a doctor, who then answered “I don’t think so”, as he waved my white cane in the air and referred to the “people like you” phrase.  So I got up next morning and went to placement, just as I have done every other morning, even after a day of discrimination and more disheartening comments from colleagues.  It is no surprise then that ‘stubborn’ was the conclusion of my school report year upon year.  Stubborn is my superpower

But my other superpower, is my disabilities.  In the words of a fellow Tweeter, I do not ‘dis’ my ability.  I instead embrace them, and utilise them, with as much positivity and realism as I can.

You see, I have this ability to sweep through the London crowds seamlessly, as my white cane creates a path of clearance as people jump out of my way, almost creating a vacuum around me.  But that’s not because people fear me.  On the wards, my patients are inviting, accommodating and welcoming of my disabilities, and most treat me like they would any other medical student or doctor.  My disabilities give me the opportunity to have those conversations with patients in ways that perhaps other healthcare staff cannot do – to empathise with them and to elaborate on the common grounds we both share.  The gadgets that help me carry out clinical tasks are also a good tool for patient ‘small talk’.  When patients ask out of curiosity how I can possibly take blood from their veins if I am registered blind, I tell them it’s more about using the sense of touch and feel, more than sight.  I joke that I can take blood with both my eyes closed.  But what they don’t know is that yes, I can in fact do this, though this is something I keep strictly within the Simulation Suite of medical school.  And then there’s my stethoscope – a Thinklabs model, just the bell, with no ear piece or wires – just a wireless connection to my hearing-aids via Bluetooth.  I can hear a patient’s heartbeat metres away

Meanwhile, Tim looked pretty miffed by his Mother’s comment, and for a moment I was unsure, weighing up whether talking to the small boy would either seem a little creepy or wildly absurd, with the Southern culture of not talking to other commuters on the train being wholly apparent.  But I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and passionate for Tim’s position – in the back of my mind I could see him become the superhero he dreamed to be, if only he knew what his superpower was.  If only he used that superpower.  So I leant in, and pointed to my hearing-aids before pointing to his.  I looked at Tim and smiled:  “You can be anything you want to be”.  Pointing back to his hearing-aids, funky blue moulds sparkling in the train-carriage light, I said to Tim:  “This is your superpower”. 

I hope, in 20 or so years time, I bump into Tim again, funky blue hearing-aid moulds sparkling, wearing his imaginary superhero cape, and Bluetooth stethoscope hanging next to his name badge: ‘Dr. TIm’. You can be anything you want to be, if you learn to embrace your superpower…

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