Friday, 23 November 2012

So why Biology?

Be warned: there's no gardening in this one.

  Before I start, I just want to give a shout out to London's navvies.  Tonight the rain is amazingly heavy and the wind is frankly extraordinary.  I saw it at Clapham blow the rain thirty-odd feet off plumb in the space of a ten foot drop.  It was in the eyes, knackering my visibility.  It was in the boots, numbing my feet.  It was under the boots, denying me a comfortably sturdy footing.  Ridiculous conditions.  Then as the train went through St. Margarets I saw the Men In Orange preparing to walk the tracks.  Such a brave and dangerous thing to do, but if they don't do it then one night my train might not deliver me home to Strawberry Hill in one piece.  I take my hat off.

No great shocker that I'm presently nursing a hot chocolate with a decent glug of Bailey's in it.

  So I've decided that I'm no longer going to try and get a head start on my fees.  £27k is either ten years' saving or a bank job.  If I want that slip of the paper which says I can probably try grownup science then I'm just going to have to swallow the debt.  Fucking Tories!  I want to do Natural Sciences, and having been unable to choose between Biology and Geology I'm looking at the possibility of taking a major/minor split with Biology being the major.

  I've just finished college this year, a fact that my circle seem to be quite proud of.  I get asked what I'm going to do next and it's always "so are you going to do Medicine?"  Up until a year ago I would've said yes, but something has changed.

  When I was sixteen I enlisted.  I applied at first to join the REME, to become a mechanic or a spark.  Joining up is quite an involved process, and there's all manner of screening to go through.  When I completed my psychological profile I was taken to one side by a recruiter who said that being an electrician would suit me, but that being a medic might suit me more, and with a BARB score of 80 (the intelligence test, the average score is around 50) I might enjoy the mental challenges of medicine.  So I ended up joining the RAMC and training as a medic.  One conversation really can put your life on a different path.

  I was earmarked for the 16th before my legs got busted and I was honourably discharged.  I landed on my feet in civvy street and found work as a nurse in acute stroke care.  I spent a good few years in stroke and loved every minute of it.  When I was 20 a patient had what was from my perspective the worst possible outcome.  Not just a death - I'd had my first at 17 and a good number since - but a death in which a choice I'd made had affected things.  Let me be clear: the patient was not going to be walking out the front door whichever way you slice it.  Still, when you're young and you find yourself in that scenario, how things are explained and handled in the first few hours can make or break you.  It broke me.  It messed me up, tore my mind apart so badly that I spent a week under observation, and I'm not the same person since.

  That is not the problem.  Far from it.  It hurt, and it should hurt.  It should hurt so that you don't make the same mistake twice.  It should hurt so that you don't assume, you don't gamble, you question everything (most of all yourself) and you kick your own arse into doing the very best you can do; because you never want to feel that again.  Then a year ago I found that I had accepted it, that after more than half a decade I'd made peace with myself.  This was unnerving, because I don't want to ever become hardened to such things.  I've already lost a part of myself, and I don't want to know how much more of myself I'd have to lose in order to wear so thick a shell as that.

So no Medicine.

  Medicine was always a second choice.  I'd never really aimed to have a career in healthcare.  I was a geeky kid who liked circuits and snails, minerals and fossils.  I was always interested in the natural world and how it worked.  Medicine appeals to the right person for the right reason, but is also just a popular way for a scientist to get a paying job.  What I really want to do is give the Universe a poke to see what it does, and I always have.

  I started college two years ago at 25.  A late bloomer, but what the hell.  That could've been shit, but it wasn't.  When you're a hyperactive genderqueer autist with a fucked up knee and a half-palsied hand you find you can have quite a spread with teachers and with authority figures in general.  Maybe you'll be pitied, or ignored, or seen as a curiosity, an interesting case study or test subject, or someone to tick a load of boxes for their diversity cred.  I lucked out in that my lecturers did none of that shit.  The experience gave me a renewed confidence, not only in my aptitude for science but also in my ability to carve out a place for myself as a scientist.

  Going out and studying the natural world no longer feels like an impractical pipe dream.  It's real and attainable and if I could spend the rest of my life doing that then I would be a very happy person indeed.

Now, if I am going to give the Universe a poke then I'm gonna need a bloody long stick...


  1. I should have responded to this when you first wrote it, but I want to say how proud I am of you and all that you have achieved. This is an incredibly powerful piece to emphasise the other side of medicine - too many of my current students think it's swanning around in a white coat making people better.

    1. If you think they'd benefit from reading it then go ahead.

  2. Firstly, what is a navvie?

    Secondly, I'm glad to hear this. I've never quite seen you as being right for medicine or medicine as being right for you. Many reasons. Medicine is horrifically hierarchical, and [booming, authoritative voice] You Must Know Your Place. You say yourself you have a spread with authority figures, how would that work with medical hierarchy? In medicine if you don't toe the line you're screwed.

    Medicine if all for being tolerant of patients, but it's far from accepting, especially of the kind of awesome diversity that you'd bring. And whilst I can't imagine you'd ever let that hold you back, there would be ways beyond your control in which that could make your life and career difficult (god that's depressing).

    This one might be contraversial: you're open about being autistic, and I'm of the opinion that autism and medicine don't mix well. I'm not on the spectrum (though sometimes not a million miles from it) but I've developed some understanding of autism from friends but mainly from having a sister with Asperger's - basically what I know and what I'm saying is not just out of a medical text book.
    If autism causes difficulties and/or differences with social interaction, relating to people, understanding other people's persepctives and empathising, then how is a job which, at its heart is about engaging with people, sometimes on a deep and personal level, going to suit someone who is autistic? I realise this is an ideal world thing - some doctors don't give a shit about engaging with people. And some of those really shouldn't be doctors.

    You're right, medicine is a popular way for a scientist to get a paying job, and I think it's a bad way. Obviously I'm a scientist, but I don't do medicine just so I get paid to do science. Some people do, and they are often less fulfilled by it - a great deal of what I do is not science at all. Yet I often do it 14 hours a day, sometimes 12 days in a row. If all that interested me was the science, this would be a very depressinng life (tbh 12 days in a row is depressing however much of it interests you).

    There is often pressure and expectations for people to do medicine, which you've clearly experienced from what people have been asking you. So many people do medicine just because people say "yeah, do it!" or variations thereof, and don't fully think about it for themselves (most definitely guilty as charged). The fact that you have thought it through for yourself and decided that the best thing for you is to defy any expectations and do your own thing, is full credit to you.

    I'm sorry you had such an terrible experience from your involvement with your patient. It must be awful to have felt that kind of responsibility. I would like to offer to sit down with you one day and talk through it, maybe I'd be able to shed some light on some aspects of the case and it would be less your "fault" than you had thought, I don't know, and I don't know if you'd want that. I think accepting what happened now is less about being "hardened" and more about learning to live with yourself, I hope you continue to do so.

    Apologies for the very long comment.
    I am so looking forward to seeing you poke the universe with a stick!

    1. A navvy is someone who builds and/or maintains a canal or railway.

      No worries about the long post, Ro. I don't really need to sit down and talk about it; it happened seven years ago and I've grown a lot since then.

      It's a common misconception that I dislike hierarchy. I actually quite like knowing my place. I can lead or I can follow, I'm comfortable either way, but I recognise that in important business such as health there must be someone with the final say. Authority figures can be pricks if they so choose, but I know how to keep my head down when it suits me to do so. Granted, it don't often suit me.