Our NHS: 1.5 million stars

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1.5 million stars. Wow

Have you ever looked up to the sky at night and waited for the billions of stars to slowly emerge through wisps of dark cloud?  Have you ever just stood or lay there, wondering where all these stars have come from, how old they all are, where they were created, and how?  Have you ever wondered what they all do and where they all disappear to when we buzz about our busy, ignorant lives, in the daylight?

Only in the darkness can we see the stars.  But, to share our stories of being in this darkness; one deep, black, vast void of a lonely sky, it surely means we can only shine brighter, as more of us join the constellation back here on the ground – the same constellation that makes up the 100 billion stars in the entirety of our beautifully swirling, indestructible galaxy. 

The poet, Nikita Gill, so simply, yet powerfully says, that “we are all just stars that have people names”, and, it is with thanks to her brilliance in creation, that I was able to use these profound words to deliver my message at TEDxNHS this year.  With that in mind, I asked each and every one of you, to take a closer, deeper look at each other, to understand our stories, our stars – not simply judge us from the way we look or from where we’ve come from.

“We are all just stars that have people names”.  But, we are also all just stars that have had our own journeys, triumphs, struggles, stories, all traveling through this space of time, sometimes through moments of destruction, where we’ve fallen, then risen.  Our shine has at times been dimmed and faded, become that dying light, exploded like the Red Giants, grown cold like those White Dwarfs.  At our most vulnerable, we have become these fragile shells of burning structures that bleed into the night with fire, desperation, but still searching for passion and message.  Still searching to give off our story, and give off our starry light

I’ve been misjudged.  Time and time again.  Being deafblind means that often, my aids are the first things people see, and consequently, the first things people use to make their minds up about me.  I’ve been told that “I don’t look like a medical student, because I have a cane and hearing aids”.  I’ve been told “would you want a disabled doctor treating you?  Absolutely not!”  Then sent home.  I’ve been told not to “touch any of the patients” and I’ve overheard the question of “how do you expect an invalid like her to run the NHS?”  I had been misjudged, dismissed, and had accepted that, because I was deafblind, I shone differently to everyone else.  I didn’t belong in anyone’s constellation where I could soar high or shine bright.  I’d been pushed away into this black hole, not to be seen or heard, where my message and tale had been lost in the vacuum. 

But, until we search for the real meanings below, beyond, a person, a star’s surface, we won’t ever be able to know the real stories of all those stars.  Yet still, not everything can be seen with the naked eye.  Metaphorically speaking, some things are so obvious and right before us, yet our lack of insight, understanding, clarity, makes us blind to the very world we are all stood on, as we speak.  We therefore need to get our telescope out and look deeper.  Until we look deeper, seeing each star as being unique, different, some as balls of fire, others lumps of ice, they will all forever just look like these tiny, insignificant, faintly glittering specks, that we ignorantly close our eyes to at night, and are just as blind to during the day, still all the same.

On the stage of TEDxNHS then, I thus asked onlookers, stargazers, in my talk, to take a long, close look at me, through my telescope – to try and see what I see, in the same way that I have done, using my camera lens as a telescope to capture the lives of NHS staff in my ‘Faces of the NHS’, campaign, as a deafblind medical student training in a gradually culture-shifting NHS, alongside 1.5 million other stars. 

In many ways, stepping out onto that firm, red circle, innocently gave way to the turbulent journey my own star had somewhat streamed through – sometimes leaving fire, sometimes leaving dust.  As the stage lights went down and the only remaining light hung on me, I was suddenly reminded of the darkness I too had travelled through; nearing between life and death when sepsis ravaged every system imaginable whilst on a holiday to Italy.  The moment my own family drove across a crumbling bridge in Genoa, before it gave way just a few hours later.  The indescribable discrimination and workplace bullying that left me running home, streaming tears of anger and confusion, whilst trying to juggle an otherwise dream career path.  The inequality and unfairness I had so commonly encountered that my confidence had now become this dying light, differently-distorted star, that drifted off into a space of social isolation, unhappiness and ‘not fitting in’.  The 15 ICU admissions that weakened me by the day, subtly moulding my otherwise happy and healthy self into this brittle material that could spontaneously combust and collapse at any moment.  The fate of love and loss, when losing the ones closest to you, becomes so permanently shattered that your feelings become irreversibly abused.  The silence, and darkness, had stunned me, and for one very small moment, I wanted the big red circle to swallow me up into the ground.

But I also knew that this was my time to shine; to shine amongst so many others – those who had also taken their steps onto that same red carpet, moments before, and were now all dazzling so bright.

In there, on that red carpet and out into the shadow of our audience, also hung the stories of other speakers’ tales too – the darkness Kate Morrissey fumbled in, as she fought a drug addiction with all her might, scrambling desperately towards the light at the end of the tunnel.  The loneliness and fear of invisible suffering PTSD caused, and consumed Charlie Webster.  The plumes of toxic, black smoke that shadowed over Grenfell Tower as Fatima Elguenuni’s family fled a burning devastation.  The seemingly infinite void Dr. Sammy Batt-Rawden and her husband found themselves numb-floating in as their premature baby Joshua fought to survive, against all odds.  We have all been there, but we were also all now back there, on that stage, burning through this darkness, shining bright, and so deserving to be heard, and seen.

This darkness admittedly consumed me for a few moments – the hatred and discriminatory words I had faced as a disabled medical student threw my mind into a blank sky for what felt like an eternity.  I had been on such an auto-pilot all week, sharing with  the media time and time again, through live television and radio interviews, these unfavourable, sometimes horrific encounters, that it had become a norm, until now.  But, in hindsight, that silence, although terrifying, and judgmental, was also beautiful, because it really resonated back to the concept that really, we are all just stars that have people names.  It really resonated back to the concept that, because of this, we are all equally fragile, sometimes dim and sometimes bright, and that below the glowing surface of each star, we are all burning in different ways, to different things, burning along to different sparks of emotions. 

John Green once said “there is no shortage of fault in our stars”, and with every flawed story that is written in these stars, we use them, to live every day, every moment.  I used my faults, my flawed speech, and flawed silence, to take all the darkness back, to highlight the difficult experiences within the safe place, that was our wonderfully supportive TEDxNHS audience.  I wanted to share the moments where I had been that falling star, losing all grip and identity through my own education and support at medical school.  I wanted to share the moments where I was that dying star; the ‘what ifs’, the signed consent forms for the ‘if all else failed’, the last-resort tracheostomy, the 20 stomach surgeries.  But then I told you, that even then, I wasn’t destined for any of this, and I never was.  Ultimately, we can choose our own destiny, regardless of what space we’re in.  And just as I had said to Tim, a deaf boy I had met on the London Underground, dreaming to become a Doctor, don’t let anyone decide what constellation you are destined for.  Let you, yourself, choose that constellation, in a way that you can shine, use your superpower, and be deservedly seen.  “You can be anything you want to be.  This, is your superpower.  Now use it”.   

I have always been deafblind, since birth.  But I haven’t always been night-blind.  So, when I was losing my night vision as a child, my Dad used to describe to me the beautiful personalities of the stars that littered the night sky.  He too, said that, from a distance, these stars were all so tiny that they all looked the same.  But up close, these stars were unique, different.  And all shining bright.  And to me, throughout my childhood, that resonated beauty, strength, diversity and uniqueness.  Four things I truly wanted to be when I grew up. 

Amongst the dozens of themes that all came away from the brilliantly inspiring TEDxNHS 2019, one of the most significant, empowering messages I picked up on was in fact a specific message we were giving to others – to inspire, and be inspired, by the next, younger generation, our children.  As many of those stars are millions of years old, they aren’t all really there.  But their place and shine in the constellation that is the sky we look up at, still remains.  Equally so, new stars are being created every second, with explosion and light, new creation of story, light years and light years away.  The children of our next generation are so invaluable to this next message, next part of the journey – again, Dr. Sammy Batt-Rawden’s son Joshua, fighting and now “the boy who lived”, Fatima Elguenini’s grandchildren, whom escaped burning Grenfell, growing up with a focus on positivity, rather than being victims of fear.  And to Tim, who, I hope, is looking up at the sky, and reaching for the stars, and using his superpowers to become the Doctor he dreams to be, far beyond the world of misjudgement and ignorance we still sadly live in – that ignorance being a far greater form of deafness than any hearing disability, just as the role of insight rides above all physical limitations of even the most perfect eyesight.

So when it comes to my message to my future children, I may not be able to describe to them the exact physical description of the night sky, as my Dad had done – but the descriptions will just be different.  They won’t necessarily be the balls of fire, or lumps of ice, or the momentary shooting star that flashes away from us before they can ever be seen, but, as a future doctor, what I can show them, describe to them, is the huge starry constellation more familiar to you and I – the world’s 5th largest employer, that is our NHS, shining bright with stars from all journeys, countries, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, job roles.  And that, beyond the 100 billion stars that are twinkling in the far distance of our galaxy, 1.5 million of these stars are our own, right here – and they, if they choose and want to be, can be part of this too.

Thing is, stars don’t discriminate.  Stars don’t hurt, nor do they fight.  Stars just stand poised and proud in an ever-changing, ever-adapting sky, surrounded by millions, if not billions, of other stars, all helping to equally share out each other’s shine and brightness.  And that, without doubt, is what we all achieved at TEDxNHS 2019. 

Every speaker, every curator, every single member of the TEDxNHS team, shone, and the 1100 who joined to hear us, see us, let us into the constellation, so that we could fill the open sky, Indigo at the O2, with enlightening stories.  And I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to be a part of that.  With all that in mind, just as I had left the stage, I ask you to take another long, close look, at everyone around you, and ask yourself, “what do you see now?” 

***Thank you to all my friends and colleagues that not only made TEDxNHS happen, but also made it memorable, inspiring, heart-pouring, tear-jerking, and wholesomely brilliant.  To those on social media, I ask you to join me in showing your support for workplace diversity, and being another proud star of our NHS’ 1.5 million-star constellation, by placing a star next to your social media handles.  Thank you, and keep all shining bright!***

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