How I Strive to See Beyond the Difference
For a very long time, I was just a number. A full-time athlete on the GB Swimming Team, training towards the London 2012 Paralympics, I would walk gingerly, cold in goosebumps, onto the icy poolside 4am each morning. The air would hang low in a fresh sluice of chlorine, the car-park outside the tinted poolside windows lost to the darkness, as everyone else still slept. And then I would thrash past the lane-ropes, breaking the silence through sweat and spray, churning up tsunamis as I throttled into the walls. All for a full 2 hours. I would dry off, jump into my joggers, heat up my porridge, and race on to school.
I would do this a second time each evening, after another long day of lessons and exam study. And then I’d be back into bed by just after midnight, before doing it all over again the following morning. I lived in soggy swimsuits.
This was my life for much of my teenage years. On weekends, my name would score the numerous events programmes of swimming competitions; Competitor 301, Lane 4, 2nd Heat. 1st, 2nd, 3rd. And so on. Until 2010, age 16.
I ended up in Bed 1, right by the little window that glared through onto the nurse’s observation desk, I can recall. The walls were off-white, blue floors shimmering in a squeaky film of bleach that turned my stomach upside down, the 2 feeding tubes and open wound stretching from my sternum right down to the umbilicus, wincing each time I groaned. 20 stomach surgeries, and my sporting life flipped right upside down, I remained known as ‘Bed 1’ for the next year and a half, throughout my long inpatient stay. I had now swapped swimsuits for a not-so glamorous oversized hospital nightgown, in which the nurses rolled me over every 2 days to change during the bed-wash.
Not once then, was I ever referred to by my name, by who I was or who I used to be. The doctors came by the bed each morning, all wearing their crinkled scrubs and elasticated trousers, ‘theatre-blue’ before they filed back to surgery. Except one. The female junior doctor. In fact, she became quite the contrast to everyone, everything else on the ward. Her flamboyant dresses tickling at her ankles, frilly skirts bursting with spectacles of mottled patterns, bringing life, colour, personality. At least I could identify her, know who she was, I thought. Yet, each morning, all these doctors, in their paper-thin blue scrubs, would huddle round the bedside, mutter through the notes then move onto the next patient. Not one doctor would look up to me, address me, or tell me what exactly was going on, what was going to happen to me next.
That’s when the doctor in the burgundy rose skirt, bursting patterns of flowers, and beaded earrings, came back to my bedside, besides the little window. She knelt down and she asked me, probably the three most important words any patient ever wants to hear:
“Are you okay?”
My honest answer? No. I really wasn’t. And I burst into tears. But this doctor got up, closed the curtains around my bed, and lifted up her blouse from the hemline of her burgundy skirt. There, I saw a long, purple braised scar, shiny and perfectly healed, trail along the entire width of her ribs. She knew how I felt – she too had been in hospital for a long time at a similar age to me. She taught me that I would have empathy to give future patients, people. And that this quality would stand out from every other doctor on that ward – I had so much more to give, and to be seen for. I wanted to be like her.
9 years on and I am a 4th year Medical Student on a busy ward round. I’m in a big bunch of doctors, huddled around the patient’s bedside, all in crinkly theatre-blue scrubs. I flaunt another tailored outfit, a leafy-green skirt and embellished shirt, my red ‘Medical Student’ lanyard loosely hung on top. We keep our heads down, mutter through the notes, then move on. But I couldn’t help but notice that this patient was distressed, unhappy. I ask the doctor to speak a little louder so that I could hear. I explained that I wore hearing-aids. He looked at me, walked away, and muttered to his neighbouring colleague,
“And how do you expect an invalid like her to run the NHS?”.
This, was just another passing comment I’m often faced with as a Medical Student on the ward. With two disabilities. On my first day of placement, a senior doctor came up to me and said
“Imagine you’re a patient…would you want a disabled doctor treating you? Absolutely not!” I was then sent home. On my way out, another doctor stopped me, to ask me what I was doing with the patient’s white cane. I had to explain that the cane was my cane. I am deafblind, you see. He looked at me in disgust and said,
“I don’t want you touching any of the patients!”
But on the other end of the spectrum, I have also been looked at in disbelief on declaring my disabilities –
“But surely you can’t be that blind, you dress so well! And who does your hair and make-up?!” I sigh and carry on with my day’s work.
I went back to the patient who lay quietly in bed, seemingly rather upset and distressed. I asked her probably the three most important words any patient wants to hear:
“Are you okay?”
She burst into tears. This patient had just come down from Intensive Care. She was alone, scared and bewildered. I got up, closed the curtains around us, sat down, and pulled my leafy-green skirt over my knees, and I said
“I know how you feel”.
Since starting Medical School in 2015, I have ended up on Intensive Care 15 times, fighting between the fragile hemlines of life and death. A long, twisted thread of survival, resilience and positivity somehow, beyond everything, getting me through.
The patient smiled, and I placed a hand on hers, and told her,
“It’s all going to be okay”.
I didn’t need any eyesight, hearing, blood test result or X-ray for this. All I needed was a bit of time, patience, empathy, and thinking beyond the box of others around me, whom were all still very much in their tight little bubbles. As I drew back the curtains, I told the patient that if she needed anything, or anyone, just to look out for the “lady doctor in the green skirt”. This time, today, I was far more than just that number I had always been.
Beyond being Competitor 301, Bed 1, the ‘lady doctor in the leafy-green skirt’, I am also the first deafblind Medical Student to be training towards becoming a Doctor in the UK. I have naturally, and half-expectedly, faced a lot of resistance and discrimination in this journey, purely because being a deafblind Doctor is simply not seen as being a ‘thing’. Purely because I am just a bit different to everybody else. Most workplaces are so glued to their rigid protocols and outdated stereotypes on what it means to look like a doctor, look like a nurse, look like a lawyer, look like a teacher, and so on, that we our losing our ability and opportunity to simply embrace our differences and uniqueness, and embrace them in ways that can help change the world, shift social perceptions, and that could otherwise help to inspire so many.
For those of you who know me though, and my capabilities, my passions, my drives, my real identity, then you will know that I will of course, never give up. Instead, I embrace my differences and disabilities and I see my unique position as being an empowering challenge, a push for change, a drive for bigger and better things – that perfect dress that I can metaphorically fit into and say
“This is me. This is who I am, and I am proud to be that person”.
As I walk out of the hospital entrance, swinging my long white cane from side to side in hand, I continue to reflect on the day, how I can do even better tomorrow, and what I can do to go further, be that bit more special, and unique, in the gifts I can give, the life stories I can acquire. I have travelled the world solo, competed both on the GB Swimming and Skiing Teams, competing at an international level. I am currently undertaking a nationwide campaign that I founded, ‘Faces of the NHS’, celebrating the diversity and beauty of our workforce through portraiture photography and collecting people’s back-stories. I have been hit by other people’s hatred, the not-so-good luck of ill-health and disheartening diagnoses, and I have lost those I once loved, and whom were so close. But, haven’t we all?
When I am out flicking through the many narrow aisles of clothes stores, I am always ‘looking’ for the most unique, eye-catching, unique labels – excusing the pun on looking, and eye-catching! I can remember once, being in the very middle of a long rail of statement coats, when I felt the most heavenly fur-trimmed jacket, thick and silken in texture – a touch that was the most delightful of delights to even the most blindest of eyes. I turned round and went to pull this jacket off the hanger, only to then realise that it was already being worn by another shopper. The woman looked up and gasped at me, but I am relieved to say that my long white cane was the ultimate giveaway in saving me from any such accusation! Besides, there was already somebody out there wearing that coat, so I didn’t need it after all. And so onto the next rail, chapter, stage, day – however you choose to imagine it, I go.
My search, for the ultimate difference, unique identity, good and bad, both literally and metaphorically, continues. I strive, to be different.
Follow Alexandra on Instagram @alexandraelaineadams