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This Doctor Can: Britain’s first deafblind medical student

Medical student Alexandra Adams talks about her journey towards becoming the first deafblind doctor in Britain.

Everyone told me not to bother applying to medical school. People ‘like me’, just didn’t go to university, let alone become a doctor. I am deafblind. Until the age of 16 I was training on the GB Swimming Team to participate in the London 2012 Paralympics, when in summer 2010 surgery on my stomach went terribly wrong. I ended up bedridden in hospital for a year and half, needing to have another 20 stomach surgeries, and had two feeding tubes inserted into my stomach and small intestine. My swimming career was over.

However, it was during that time of being a patient that my experience reaffirmed my desire to become a doctor. I can clearly remember the doctors coming around each morning, standing at the end of my bed, reading through the notes but never addressing me or involving me in the process. Except one. The junior doctor came back after the ward round and said the three most important words: ‘Are you okay?’. I burst into tears and told her I wasn’t. She got up, closed the curtains, and lifted up her blouse. She showed me a huge scar along her ribs and said: ‘I know how you feel’. This doctor had shown me empathy, and taught me that I too, would have lots of empathy to give to my future patients.

I am now the first deafblind person to be training towards becoming a doctor here in the UK

Alexandra Adams

But getting to that point hasn’t been easy. I had to restart education and life. I self-taught my A-levels and attended a special educational needs (SEN) school for blind students. Against the advice of others, I applied to medical school and got an offer. Between getting that offer and higher results that summer, I visited the medical school five times to ensure all the support was in place — I was reassured that it was and was excited to be starting my medicine journey. But just a week before moving in, I received a phone call one evening — they had changed their mind. They no longer wanted me, because I was disabled. Just like that, they put the phone down and I was left with nothing.

I could have given up at this point. But instinct and a determination to give it one last shot led me to apply again. This time I got a place at Cardiff School of Medicine, where I am now in my fourth year. After my first year, I travelled to the USA solo in search of blind and deaf doctors, to see if what I was doing was really possible. I met five blind doctors and one deaf doctor, and they were all living proof that I was right to continue pursuing my doctor dream. I am now the first deafblind person to be training towards becoming a doctor here in the UK.

Medical school has certainly had its ups and downs, but I try to embrace all the challenges with positivity and a forward focus. In my first year, I was also a member of the GB Skiing Team, which I balanced between study and exams. But 15 admissions to intensive care since the start of medical school, and a more recent diagnosis of a potentially progressive condition, have meant I had to not only stop this, but focus entirely on my course. Following a particularly bad admission during which I contracted sepsis and pneumonia and was very much treading the line between life and death, I have decided to go part-time in my studies, to allow recuperation and stability in between.

I have faced, and continue to face, a lot of discrimination though. 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. Shortly afterwards, another doctor came up to me and said: ‘What are you doing with the patient’s cane?’. I had to explain that the cane was in fact my cane, because I am registered blind, but they looked at me in disgust and said ‘I don’t want you touching any of the patients’.

Another time, when I asked a doctor to speak louder on the ward round so that I could hear, they walked away and muttered to a colleague ‘how do you expect an invalid like her to run the NHS?’.

It’s hard, but I’m continuing to push through — I recently founded a nationwide campaign called ‘Faces of the NHS’, which is a portraiture photography project that celebrates the diversity of all NHS staff, showing that we should appreciate our differences, not stereotype them. I hope that by doing things like this, by sharing my story to empower others to go into the field of medicine and follow their dreams — regardless of disability — it will help shift social perceptions and push for culture change throughout our workforce for the future.

Would you like to share your experience of becoming a doctor? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.