The dyspraxic doctor

Dr Emma Tremaine talks about how being diagnosed with dyspraxia lead her to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

Anxiety and doubt followed me like a shadow through medical school. I knew I was bright enough to be there, but for some reason, seemingly basic tasks eluded me. I remember standing in the cold anatomy rooms practising dissection, fighting back tears as the instructor barked questions at me. I couldn’t think of answers fast enough, I couldn’t even hold a knife and fork properly, let alone a scalpel. I struggled to sequence examinations, the next step of a simple cardiovascular examination slipping away as I fumbled with my stethoscope.

Keen to support me, my friends would kindly badger me to accept offers of help, but I practised for all of my practical examinations on my own in my room, the door shutting away anyone else’s views.

I knew that I needed to practise these things so much more than other people, and by the time I started my foundation years I had developed a real fear of anything new and practical. FY1 was everything I found hard, crammed into a night shift. The relentless practical skills, the organisation and prioritising, processing and thinking quickly, it was all things I could do… but at a huge cost to me. My anxiety was constantly sky-high, despite excellent feedback.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got into psychiatry training, and things began to settle. Despite this, and now with more space in my brain to consider it, I became increasingly aware that despite being intelligent, I seemed to have to work so much harder than other people. I was constantly told I needed to be more confident in myself, to speak up more in meetings or ward rounds, but I couldn’t work out how I was simultaneously supposed to listen, balance a set of notes on my knee, take meaningful and legible notes, and think of something to contribute at the right time.

By the time I completed my membership examinations, I knew I needed a break. Despite being able enough to have a career in medicine, I knew something wasn’t working for me longer-term. I took a year out, working in a school for children with learning disabilities. Working with people who have learning difficulties and disabilities has always been a passion of mine, and was what drew me into medicine at the age of 18.

During this year, I had to take part in PE lessons, and a lot of basic practical and organisational tasks which I’d managed to avoid for many years. One day the class teacher took me aside and said, ‘Emma, do you think you have dyspraxia?’ It was like a light bulb in my mind. I read everything I could about dyspraxia, wondering whether it was actually possible for someone to have made it to their late twenties without a diagnosis of something they’ve had since childhood. Turns out, they can!

Fast forward a year and I had my dyspraxia diagnosis. It’s a long process, making sense of it all and reframing the past. I made the decision to leave medicine and put my experiences to use, in a way that is manageable for me. I now provide coaching and counselling to children and adults with dyspraxia, as well as delivering training. In less than 18 months I’ve established a thriving social enterprise and won a national award. Some of the big events I do are hard for me, dyspraxia-wise, but I feel it’s so vitally important that I get the word out there so that other people don’t have the same experiences I do. I’ve found my calling.

The value that people like me have in medicine and beyond is immeasurable, but we do need support and championing.

Dr Emma Tremaine

If you remember one thing from me sharing my story, please let it be this: if a colleague or a trainee of yours seems to be struggling, please have it at the back of your mind that they could have an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental condition. Life as a doctor with a disability is a hard and often lonely road, but I’ll never forget the look of hope on the faces of children with dyspraxia I saw in child and adolescent mental health services when I shared with them that I also had dyspraxia.

Medicine needs to be more representative, but to do that needs concerted effort to retain doctors with disabilities. The value that people like me have in medicine and beyond is immeasurable, but we do need support and championing.

Follow Emma's blog to find out more: https://www.thedyspraxicdoctor.com

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