As Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week (14th – 20th October) comes to a close, I thought it apt to speak about my unprecedented life events in 2018. For a long time I have “um’ed and ah’ed” as to whether sharing my experiences with my health would be a good thing to do. Yet, if this blog post is able to help anyone else that is in a similar position to me… then it is worthwhile. Behind the content, what I do not show are the stacks of pain medication, hours spent recovering, emotional hardship and injections…
Reggie and I having a cuddle.
Let’s start at the beginning. After happily completing the first year of my BSc (Hons) Veterinary Physiotherapy degree with a first class honours, I completed my summer holidays feeling motivated to embark on the second year of my degree. As I enrolled in early September, my motivation to study was somewhat flattened by excessive tiredness, muscle pain and impaired cognitive function. Convincing myself that such symptoms were due to poor fitness, I started a weekend job as a stable groom on a small livery yard near home. I would be up at the crack of dawn to work, ride Reggie, go back to work to put the horses to bed… before finally arriving back home at gone 7pm in the depths of autumn and winter. I would be physically exhausted, but continued to ignore this feeling as I’d get up at 4am on the Monday morning to drive back to University for lectures. Writing assignments, studying, attending lectures and even eating gradually became tougher. I would take a nap at 6pm, only to wake up the next morning and still feel completely drained. Brushing my symptoms off as something less than serious, I pushed through to the Christmas holidays.
Early mornings at work.
I had never experienced anything like this before, so I put it down to the increasing academic demands that second year studies brought. I used the Christmas holidays to recuperate myself, catch up on reading and writing assignments. I spent Christmas Day evening printing out muscle revision cards and placing them in individual plastic wallets in my best efforts to memorise information.
I returned back to University in early January, my body still telling me something was amiss. Looking back, I should have listened and rested. A few weeks into the new term, my muscle pain got worse and was soon accompanied by a burning sensation in the joints of my toes. At first I blamed the freezing cold weather, trying to block out the pain as best as I could to continue attending practical sessions and lectures. As you can predict, ignoring the pain did not solve the problem; with the burning spreading from my toes to my whole foot and lower leg within weeks. The pain can only be described as submerging your legs in hot sand, with random yet consistent electric shock pains. Not wanting to admit to the excruciating discomfort I was in, I continued with my stable job and riding whilst attempting to walk normally. I was in such an irritable mood and my mother soon picked up that something was wrong. I broke down into tears as I explained everything, and the realisation dawned that I needed medical attention.
I was examined on multiple occasions… doctors baffled as much as I was at the rapid and unexpected development of my symptoms. As the weeks moved on, the pain was uncontrollable and affected my ability to walk. The pain continued to spread to my hands and arms; I left my stable job and my riding took a hit. It makes me emotional to admit to this, as to rewind back to the summer holidays where I was working at a competition stables five days a week as well as having a mare on loan… my physical ability and health had taken a plummet. Nevertheless, I was determined to complete this second year of study to the best of my ability. In the midst of assignments, presentations, practical exams and revision I attended hospital referrals and started on pain medication. The cause and diagnosis of my neurological pain was still a mystery. But as well as being in pain, I was completely drained. I was advised that the medication I was on could make me drowsy, but I was so desperate for any form of pain relief I was willing to take the chance. I spent the next few months either sleeping, or wanting to sleep and being unable to keep my eyes open. I’d fall asleep in between lectures, at my laptop, reading a textbook, whilst my food was in the oven… you name it. It reached the stage where it was counterproductive to my learning, and I had to make the decision to come off that medication and try something else.
A conversation I will always remember is with one of my lectures. We were speaking about my current circumstances and how I was managing with my assignment when she suggested I start a social media profile to keep track of my progress. She recognised I was being hard on myself, and explained how it would be a good way to log my achievements as something for me to look back on. A little hesitant, I created my Instagram profile and named it Vet Physio Phyle. “Phyle” being an Ancient Greek word for tribe, I wished to inspire others with snippets of veterinary information. I noticed there was a significant amount of veterinary medicine profiles, but a distinctive lack of veterinary physiotherapy profiles. Before I had started my degree, there was very little information out there about the newly developed course and so I hoped my Instagram profile would provide a useful insight for others.
As exam season approached and I was still being transferred from hospital to hospital for testing and scans, the over-achiever part of me began to realise that I just had to do the best I could in the situation I had to pass the year. Looking back, the months are all blurred. Alongside studying, I struggled emotionally. I will never forget this one appointment when I went to have one of my three a week vitamin B12 injections. For anyone that has not had them, they use a long and thick needle to inject directly into the muscle. The pain was insane, and I remember crying in front of the nurses being completely overwhelmed by the pain of the injection and everything else going on that I had been holding in. And that is when my Instagram account became my saving grace. It motivated me to keep studying and providing content for my followers even when times were difficult.
A trip to Hammersmith Hospital.
I completed my assignments, practical and written exams the best I could, thinking it would barely be enough for a pass as my ability to memorise information and walk still remained limited. Rather disappointed in myself, I looked back on my second year and wished I could have performed better as even now I still struggle to come to terms with how a change in physical health can have such a resounding impact on life. With this in mind, when my examination results came through I was speechless. By some magic of a miracle I had managed to pull first class marks out of the bag, completing my second year with only a few percentage marks less than what I had achieved during my first year of study. For those interested in my riding, I took away my stirrups and developed my core… determined to continue riding Reggie and going out to competitions to prevent muscular atrophy and preserve my mental health. I also took my level of matchy matchy obsession to a whole new level… oops.
Reggie and I.
Where my social media profile motivated me to keep on pushing through my studies, it was my friends, family, boyfriend, handsome cat Louis, caring horse Reggie, fleece bedsheets and candles that provided a network of support and comfort.
My pride and joy, Louis.
I wanted to write this blog post to not only share my journey thus far, but also to reach out to those who are studying through hardship – physically or mentally. I wish to remind those who believe that they are not doing well enough to take a breath, and look at how far you have come and how much you have achieved. Although I wish more than anything that I hadn’t been dealt with a physical illness, it has been an awakening reality to make me rethink my workaholic attitude. Unfortunately, life happens… and when you are presented with a hurdle your response has to be “how high?” to keep pushing through.
I am currently taking a year away from University to recuperate and recover as much as I can. But my passion for veterinary physiotherapy still persists, as I continue to study, attend CPD events and learn new therapeutic techniques. Until I can resume my studies, this is what I shall do. I love hearing feedback and everyones stories, so please drop me a message or share this blog post if you could relate in anyway or just want to share my story with others. For those reading this blog post who are all going through their own private battles, here are a few take-away messages:
You are enough as you are.
Try your best in your current situation.
Take time to rest when you need it.
It is okay not to be okay.
It is all possible, even when you think it is not… trust me.