Recovering from a big illness takes time, patience, and strength, and some days just happen to be stronger than others. I have accepted that today is a not-so-strong day and have been confined to bed, having already signed off of hospital placement for tomorrow, to give me time to recuperate and be good to myself. But it’s also a perfect time for reflection – reflection on what the goals are, where the goals lie, and how I’m working towards those goals. Studying medicine, and becoming a doctor, has always been the upmost forefront of all goals, even whilst I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work on top of wading through with 3 disabilities and a debilitating long-term health condition. But the biggest challenge in achieving this goal, aside from all the above, is actually other people – having other people accept what and who you are and be willing to support and compromise for you through your journey.
Now, I’ve experienced a fair bit of discrimination through my medical studies, as discussed quite a bit in my various other blogs, but I wanted to find out whether this discrimination was a one-off thing, a society stereotype thing, or something on a far broader scale, throughout multiple systems and workplaces. So, in line with my typical spontaneous nature, I booked last-minute flights out to the States, 2 summers ago, in a solo search for practicing disabled doctors. And I couldn’t believe my luck. Overall, I met up with 7 incredibly inspiring doctors, 6 of whom were completely blind, and 1 who was entirely deaf and communicated via sign language and lip-reading. I shadowed these doctors from the very East, in New York City, to the very West, in San Francisco, of the continent, and it was a journey, and journey of discovery, that I will hold close to my heart for a very long time.
I was taken with open arms, and got to experience how these incredible doctors diagnose, treat and manage their patients with such precision and kindness, like all their other practicing colleagues, despite their disability. One wonderful doctor, Dr. Wainapel, uses X-rays on a daily basis as his role as a rheumatologist, despite not having any vision whatsoever, may I add. How, may you ask? Simple. His lovely secretary sends him written descriptions of the X-rays so that he can then interpret them and thus decide on the next treatment for that patient. If this was in the UK, this simply would not happen, because it is not allowed, and frowned upon. Say I wanted to become a psychiatrist for instance, unlikely to be looking at many X-rays through this career field – if I am unable to identify an X-ray in the same way as any other fully-sighted medical student, I am simply unable to be a doctor altogether. When I explained this to Dr. Wainapel, his genius response to that was to question all those doctors who wear contact lenses or glasses – ask them to remove their visual aid and can they still read that X-ray, without all the white lines blurring into one? No.
I was welcomed to share more of my stories of the discriminations and inequalities experienced in a UK-based medical system and the responses were of complete warm-hearted, understand and sympathetic nature. Aside from many, many obvious inequalities the great country of America faces right now, I truly found that I could call this place ‘home’ someday, a home where I would actually be allowed to study and work, regardless of my disabilities, being respected by my surrounding colleagues at the same time. I strive to be a whole-heartedly great and giving doctor in the future, but I can only do this if I am accepted, and it’s just frustrating that those places that will accept me, hold up clear financial barriers and sorts, out of their control. For now, at least, anyway.
After an inspiring time had in New York, navigating the beautifully busy, leafy Brownstone streets of New York City with just myself and my long white cane, I took another flight out to the other side, San Francisco, to meet up with a deaf doctor. The kindness and gratitude of the New York people I would miss very much. When I became mislaid in way on the NYC subway en-route to JFK Airport, tightly time-constricted, so many passers-by offered to stop and help. I made good friends with a young lady all the way from the little island of Dominica, an elderly gentleman, born and bred in New York’s Chinatown, opened up about his entire life and his close companionship with the Godly world. A middle-aged arts student took me all the way from the Bronx down to Times Square on the subway, despite it going in the complete opposite direction he needed to be in, running 10 minutes late for his class. And, once I had finally arrived at the airport, 3 police officers from the NYPD stood and chatted with me, offering me one of their infamous hamburgers that were left over from their shift. Contrary to belief, I found the NYPD quite friendly and had taken quite a likening to them!
The flight to the land of the Golden Gate Bridge was long, but it gave me a perfect opportunity to catch up on my favourite leisure – sleep. Only it was quickly interrupted by the entrance of the very last passenger, another young woman, who had likely consumed much of the airport’s red wine stores prior to boarding, and who later confided in me that she had a serious fear of flying…as the only passenger on board with some form of (minimal) experience in first aid, I spent the next 2 hours trying to calm this woman down from a severe panic attack. And breathe. Just to add to matters, a guy sitting the other side of me (yes, I was packed in the middle), had embarked on sampling the entire 5 courses of the airline cuisine, starting off with his entrÃ©e of tomato soup. Personally, it looked no more than a small bowl of thin, sloppy liquid – the blended remnants of a tomato paste tube, but it was a deep red, a very deep red. This gentleman was at least 6 foot without doubt, but it was his width that made the entire journey rather overwhelming. Excuse my rudeness, but being undeniably morbidly obese, his left thigh, larger than my entire bodily frame, flapped loosely on top of both my legs, his arms invading the peripheries as he chopped into his dinner, elbows invisible. Then, out of nowhere, the slightest bit of turbulence somehow sent the tomato soup, flying in slow motion, upside down and landing directly in my crotch. All whilst my other neighbour began spiralling down into another episode of hyperventilation chaos. Not an ounce of tomato soup had landed on my neighbour typically, but this very, very deep red slush was now stained perfectly in between my lap. Great. I now had to shuffle the walk of shame through San Francisco’s arrivals looking like I had been caught short, coming on a little too early.
Aside this predictable drama, as with every other time I travel somewhere, my time in San Francisco, just like NYC, was simply glorious. Yes, the steep, vertical hill climbs were a huge shock to my asthmatic self, but thankfully this was pre-diagnosis of my muscle disorder – I dread to think how I could navigate them now. Meeting up with Dr. Hochman, a wonderfully kind man, a doctor with over 30 years’ experience, and deaf, was fascinating. I was admittedly daunted by the concept of communication, for my knowledge of sign language is surprisingly very little, partly due to the fact that I cannot see to hear! But like me, Dr. Hochman had fluently mastered the rare-possessed skill of lip-reading. We sat over a Chinese meal, post-clinic, to share our experiences, once again of access and equality, or inequality in my case, of practicing medicine with a disability. Thanks to this doctor, I am now the proud owner of a Bluetooth stethoscope – a stethoscope that allows me to pick up even the faintest heart murmurs without even putting anything in my own ears to hear it, just the bell of the stethoscope and a wireless transmission straight to my hearing-aids. Technology is beautiful. Only, let’s just imagine what technology will be like in the next 10 years’ time – maybe by this time I’ll have my hands on the finest pair of X-ray specs – then the UK might be a just about acceptable place to study and work as a doctor, if allowed?
My last day in this golden state was spent doing a little solo exploring before heading back to NYC. I had decided to visit the vast but magnificent Muir National Woods, with towering Sequoia and Redwood trees, as recommended by my new doctor friend. This was evidently a bad idea, having then realised I had no phone signal, hence no Google Maps, and for a blind person who had managed to stray off path up a couple of soil banks I was convinced I was lost forever in the wilderness. When asking about tactile maps and taxi services I was simply laughed at, oblivious to how rural the location really was. It was just me and trees. For miles. But, after a bit of a gamble, a last-resort hitchhike with a friendly Washington family, locking myself in the fridge of a closed-down florist shop (and being mistaken for a suspicious intruder with a menacing white weapon), and a very large rhubarb gelato, I made it back in time over the bridge to Oakland, to collect my suitcases for the return trip to the East Coast.
I had been very lucky with the weather throughout my stay in America, with the husky blue skies being a dazzling contrast to the auburn leaves and Brownstone terraces. The ferry to Staten Island on my last day in NYC was yet another perfect time to reflect on my new ‘eye-opening’ experiences and encounters throughout my few weeks in America. Perhaps the biggest thing I learnt, aside from the kindness of the American people, and superb accessibility for blind, solo travellers, I learnt that doing medicine with a disability IS entirely possible, and it IS entirely acceptable, as proved by the many amazing doctors I met here. It’s just a shame to think that perhaps the UK are indeed a few years behind in their guidelines, attitudes and openness to new stereotypes and technology, and it’s something that I will just have to work with to my best ability until more opportunities arise. On the last 15 minutes of my ferry journey thick grey clouds rolled over and it began to pour, my first taste of rain since I arrived in America. But, out on the distance, still standing on the deck, battered by the wind and wet, a beautiful rainbow arose over the NYC skyline, and it was utterly breath-taking. It was then that I knew that this was the city of dreams, and that dreams can come true if you go out and get them!