Last week I woke up in San Francisco and looked at my cellphone to see that I had loads of notifications on twitter when I hadn’t really tweeted anything.
I wondered what had happened. When I opened the app, I was overwhelmed and then disbelief took over when I saw that I had won the National SCoR Radiotherapy Student of the Year 2016 award.
I stared at the website at my own name for like 15 minutes, unable to almost recognise it: it middle-named me (Now you all know my middle name – which I don’t like, FYI). So it was strange to see my real full name – not Smizz, not just Sarah Smith. The whole official Passport, birth-certificate name. Official.
I wondered throughout the day whether or not to share the news on Facebook publicly, And I decided I would.
ONLY because I want to dedicate this award to you.
To my friends (both course friends & placement friends & twitter friends; friends before this course & my art friends & friends afterwards – ALL my friends), I want to dedicate this award to my lecturers who helped me figure out how to write somewhat scientifically, who tried to give me some confidence & support my ideas; I want to dedicate this to all my Leeds Teaching Hospital Colleagues – who all mentored me and supported me throughout the last 3 years – You guys really showed me what incredible patient care looks like, and supported my energy to make things for patients and students. To my doctors and healthcare professionals who inspired me to get into radiotherapy through their care & kindness towards me & i felt like I needed to give that care & kindness back. And I want to dedicate this to my patients; all who trusted me with their lives, their hopes and their fears. I am humbled.
And most of all, I want to dedicate this to my family: My mom & Bro & nan the most — who support me in what ever crazy road I take and are always there for emotional support and belief.
I’m only here because of y’all.
The reason I feel so incredibly emotional about this award is my journey getting here. After falling really sick & getting told it looked like Lymphoma – something shifted within me.
I had to use this experience – as patient, as artist, as social justice worrier – to make things better for others within the healthcare system and community. Every time I was in the hospital as a patient, the gaps would stare at me. But I also felt this incredible need to give back to the system what it had given me: hope & incredible care (most of the time & eventually).
But I didn’t want people to think I was peacing out of the art world. I was, and still am an artist – first and foremost. So I secretly applied to do my undergraduate in Radiotherapy & Oncology. To give back. When I got accepted to the course (another surprise!), I worried about how I could explain to others what and why I was doing it. I worried about it all the time. And when the day finally came, I convinced myself that I didn’t need to say anything at all. But I was wrong.
Since then I have worried again and often – that I’d given up my art career and I sucked at being a healthcare professional; that I wasn’t smart enough, that I was slow, under confident, that I’d chosen to go into healthcare because you can’t make money in art (the worst), or worse, that I simply did not care about art any more. None of these were true, either.
But, the story is more complicated.
I worked harder at building my art practice than on anything in my life, though it never felt like work. I devoted myself to it, though it never felt like sacrifice. And to my delight, it kind of began to pay off! Until I fell sick. And everything crumbled underneath me. Like my own identity.
I am also endlessly grateful. Those years gifted me experiences, skills, lessons, and friendships. I would not be me without them.
My close-friends saw me nearly go under and knew I had some close calls. It took me over a year to regain slight normalcy. Suffering, i tried to get back into the same art-stuff, all my jobs. But my body was still broken.
It is easier than ever (for most) to go to university. But many forget that it’s a rare privilege to find something you care about so deeply and be able to make it your life.
I realized I couldn’t have my old life back, but I also kinda didn’t want it anymore.
But I’d kept all this secret for ages. Switching to Radiotherapy WAS HARD.
In art, it’s about a lack of boundaries— complete freedom. failure is a default. It’s ok. You try and test ideas, and adapt – a bit like a PDSA cycle. In healthcare- everything is boundaries, everything is rules (for good reason (mostly)). The work, whilst I was feeling poorly, was heavy – and physically and emotionally labour intensive. The amount of stuff I had to learn from anatomy, to reading CTs, to radiological physics, to NICE guidelines to learning treatment protocols, learning all of the machines & regimes & dose calculations & treatment planning software etc, and what’s right, and how we do it at our local centre was all crazy.
I nearly quit in January 2015.
I was in and out of hospital myself. I’d been run over on my bike, I was in a fire. I was in a lot of pain. I cried at work on to my mentors in Sim (i’m really not a crier – esp. publicly). It was so embarrassing. We joke about it all now. But I was close to the edge then.
I didn’t think I was going to make it. I felt like a black sheep. I felt like a failure. I felt so behind my peers. What happens if I screwed up both my art & healthcare opportunities and get left with nothing? I would loose everything. I didn’t even have my health.
But I knew if i could get through it, because that’s the working class artist kid in me, I could make things better for patients and HCP if i got through it.
Through reflection, using my artist sensibility & my yearning to make the patient pathway better & my fellow students life easier – with my time:
I started online revision groups, I went to conferences and delivered papers.
I won student leadership awards.
I made more and more things to help people.
All using everything I had learnt in art and my time in the art world & my experiences from clinical placement and as a patient. Because friends, healthcare needs creativity, kindness, and good design. It kinda needs artists, for sure.
In the end: I graduated with 93% First Class honours. I got a full prestigious scholarship – free ride & $$$ – to pursue my PhD to cement my theory that using artistic practice can help enable better patient information, and re-design things in the oncology system with the user (patient, citizen, HCP) and experience at the centre of it — using their experiences. Being a hybrid of: clinical radiotherapist and artist and patient in one is absolutely vital to this phenomenological, qualitative research.
When I left America years ago, I was on a plane home because I was dying. I lost that old life, but, I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate for this.
I think the greatest freedom that I’ve gained is the fact that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.
Winning radiotherapy student of the year makes me feel like maybe all this happened for a reason. I feel like I might have , maybe, actually helped some people during my training – and this means so much to me than any title, any job, any exhibition.
I’ve lost so much, but I’ve gained so much more.
I don’t know yet what’s next for me, but these past few months I’ve been thinking a lot.
I’ve been thinking about how if you’re lucky enough to be doing work you love, it’s your responsibility pay it forward, thank everyone who got you there & plan for the day that you might not be able to do it.
So here I am. I dedicate and want to share this award with YOU.
To my placement buddies for all the laughs, the cooking, the tears, the sharing of knowledge, the late night last minute pebble pad sessions & the words of encouragement. To all the staff who helped me to become a qualified radiographer. Who wouldn’t let me put myself down. To showing me what listening and really caring look like, to believing we can change things as healthcare professionals! You know who you are. And you deserve this more than me. Thanks for the belief and hope and love friends! I wouldn’t be here without you all, in every single way possible. I know this is a product of you supporting me, and teaching me, and believing in me. We’re all going through something.
You’re all amazing.
I’ll be taking my Nanna to the ceremony in London. She’ll be so proud, & I’m so happy that I’ll get to take her.
I’m humbled by this. And I wanted to share a bit of my story of why this means so much to me, and for you guys to know I never, ever, take this stuff for granted.
Lots of love, gratitude and shock.
To using my time well & to help others.
THANK YOU ALWAYS
Much love always,
Your friend Smizz.