The Year of Zinc

I’ve not blogged in ages. I keep reflecting, but it’s stored in hidden word documents on my laptop – sometimes making an appearance at a conference, or on my Facebook – in the safety of friends and not just the internet-public.

But I’ve been thinking about getting to 30. Alive. I really can’t believe it.

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On the periodic table 30  is the element Zinc. Roughly one third of all metallic zinc produced today is used in a process known as galvanization. During galvanization, an object that is subject to corrosion, such as an iron nail, is given a protective coating of zinc. I like the idea that my new decade is started with the year of Zinc: an element that is most useful in trying to stop corrosion.

5 years ago, an event happened that changed my life. Some of you where there, and others have followed the progress reports. But, honestly, i think it’ll take a full ten years for me to understand the impact and outcome of that one event.

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Life in many ways is like a paint by numbers book, where you can colour, one tiny bit at a time but within invisible lines. The whole picture emerges much later. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

A decade ago, today, if you had asked me today if my life would turn out the way it has done — I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. In many ways, life has been so much better than I ever really thought it would be!
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Getting to 30 isn’t really big news, but it’s a biggie for me, and ANY of my friends will vouch for me – I never thought I would make it to here. I thought this at high-school. I guess living in abject poverty makes you feel like this – like there’s no future. And this was even before I fell sick. But then when I did fall sick, I would look at what was happening to me and how i felt and thought for sure I wouldn’t be alive by now. At times, I actually didn’t want to live. Like, I just felt like I couldn’t live with this kind of pain – for the rest of my life – without someone understanding what this experience was doing to me with me.

So, I’m really grateful to be getting here.

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Despite this being kinda big news for me, i’m surprisingly anxious about it all too. I still feel 21 in my head. I still get I.D’d for booze at bars & M&S when buying BucksFizz, and if I’m really trying it on, I can still get Teen cinema tickets at the local Odeon.
My life is that of an 18 year olds. I moved back home, have no kids, no pension, basically a few $ in savings, the worst credit history – ever. I’m still a student, albeit I prefer researcher now (PhD). But getting really sick in my 20’s kind of funked things up a bit. I lost time for making and meeting people and things. I lost confidence, and money and I spent a whole lot of it when I got it — YOLOing or trying to find cures for my fatigue (all didn’t work BTW).
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By societies standards, I’m not a success. And I can feel it. I should have *done more* by now. People my age are consultants and own houses, and head-teachers and more. And it’s hard not to compare yourself. But in my own standards (and I think this is what matters) I’m relatively happy with where I am right now.
I mean, I am alive. I do think about that a lot.
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Confronting mortality makes you ask some fundamental questions of yourself and your relationships. It makes you a lot more honest with yourself. It forces you to say no more often, for you know the fleeting nature of life, the minuscule time we have on the planet and what matters is how we choose to spend it. And how you choose to act aswell.
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But 30 years is a long time to have witnessed change and fragility.  Over the past 5 years of ‘illness’, I realised that BEING alive and FEELING alive are 2 different things. And what I’ve learnt over 30 years is what Oprah’s words from her Golden Globes speech encapsulated:

“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have.”

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I recently read Dr Rod Kersh’s response to Henry Marsh’s guardian article  on the treatment by the legal system and the media, of a transplant surgeon scaring in his initials into patients livers.

And it got me thinking about empathy, and dignity, and teams and Zinc. Rod is one of the most compassionate (& innovative) doctors I know.  I first met him like 5 years ago. It was my 3rd time ever at a hospital appointment. I still hadn’t learnt how to “behave” in these situations (i think i still struggle with what to say and what not to mention even now).  But I still remember our first clinic with clarity, exact words and phrases. He told me how he was going to treat/talk to me (like an equal).  And it properly threw me. I thought about it for weeks afterwards. It was a weird thing to say. But it properly made me feel like I could trust him, that I (my life) was important. This phrase was further backed up by his actions, because in trying to describe what was happening to me, i described it more in how these symptoms was really hindering my life. And he was super intrigued by this. He’s the only doctor (except the ENT doctor this week who was genuinely concerned with my massive hearing loss and my quality of life/future) who seemed to gauge what was important to me. I noticed that when people didn’t hear me out, it made me feel more desperate. (That’s not to say everyone else I see or have seen don’t care… because that’s simply not true at all, but there’s a difference in acknowledging).

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He, and a few of my HCP, inspired me to be the best healthcare professional I could be. I subconsciously learnt what was good care and what wasn’t as good as that. And now everytime I am with a patient, I remember what is important to me when I am in this system. And the differences in actions and languages. And I want to make sure people feel seen and heard. Feel like whatever they’re telling me that is bothering them in their lives, that it matters. That they matter. Despite whatever is happening. Because often people just want to be heard.

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Many forget that it’s a rare privilege to find something you care about so deeply and be able to make it part of your life. For me, I realize that it makes sense that 30 is Zinc.  I am so endlessly grateful. These years have gifted me experiences, skills, lessons, and friendships. I would not be me without them because these people: my friends, teams, colleagues, working together – have acted like Zinc. 

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They have provided me with a coating, that has helped to ease the corrosion of life (from art, to work, to learning, to sickness and more). And in doing so have taught me how to be Zinc too.

You will never regret offering dignity to others.

We rarely get into trouble because we overdo our sense of justice and fairness. Not just us, but where we work, the others we influence. Organizations and governments are nothing but people, and every day we get a chance to become better versions of ourselves.

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And yet… in the moments when we think no one is looking, when the stakes are high, we can forget. It’s worth remembering that justice and dignity aren’t only offered on behalf of others.

Offering people the chance to be treated the way we’d like to be treated benefits us too. It goes around.

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The false scarcity is this: we believe that shutting out others, keeping them out of our orbit, our country, our competitive space—that this somehow makes things more easier for us.

But today, value isn’t created by filling a slot, it’s created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.

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The false scarcity stated as, “I don’t have enough, you can’t have any,” is more truthfully, “together, we can create something better.”

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And going forwards in setting the tone to my next decade is just that. To be Zinc: to help, share, collaborate and support. To be compassionate and empathetic.  I will do whatever it takes.

I just like to take this moment to say thank you to everyone in my life who have gotten me here too (from everything). I love y’all! Keep being awesome!

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learning to lean in

Words are  often a poor substitute for imagery.

One of my Doctors: “So Sarah, why do you want to work in healthcare – even though you’re an artist?”

I spoke about my own experiences & the opportunity artistic practice can offer to enhance care and services – the ability to use a different perspective to make a difference.

He turned to me expressed his heartfelt regrets and said: “Art gives you, like flying, something that other people don’t have.”

It was as if he was saying, what you lack in a functional immune system, you make up for in other unique ways.

And with this, a few days ago I found out that I passed my radiotherapy & oncology BSc Hons degree with a 92.6% First-class degree!!!

I have a fully-funded PhD scholarship offer bringing together 2 of my passions together (art & healthcare) that starts in October, and I leave for the U.S.A in 5 days times for a good couple of months. I genuinely can-not-believe it!!

Not too shabby for the working class kid with no science background or previous healthcare working experience.

I am humbled, and most of all feeling extremely privileged to have shared this crazy journey with you all. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to this day, in all kinds of ways, and for this reason this achievement feels incredibly important and special.

For a long time, I had made who I was by being a work-horse. I could totally juggle 8 things at once. I could totally stay up til 3am in the morning working on hopeful-kick-ass projects/ideas/gigs – and then get up at like 9/10am the next day — no questions about it.  My mind constantly buzzed with all the cool things we could do. I’d sleep with a notebook and jot down cool ideas in the middle of the night. If you needed something doing – I was the person! But Nothing prepares you for the day when you can’t do what you do any more.

I didn’t feel like myself. I felt broken. I loathed who I had become.

There I was, hopeless – barely there. Not feeling alive.

I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t believe it was happening to me.

I’ve spent the last couple of years searching for the Old (younger) Smizz. I’ve looked for her all over  —But there’s no going back to my old life.

I am broken. There’s no protocols or discharge instructions to guide people back to their lives.

But I am alive.

I do think about that a lot.

 

This degree course allowed me to gain some control, it gave me some much needed (if not too much) structure and helped me to try & hopefully make a difference. After all, what is the point of saving a life if the life isn’t a meaningful one?

And the friends I’ve met whilst doing it – all with their own personal stories – have helped to inspire, and alongside all my other friends, they’ve helped me to carve this new path for myself.

It highlights the fact that I’ve never actually accomplished a single meaningful thing by myself, and this is included.

The past few years has taught me that reading the fine print of your mortality is a great sifter of rubbish.

In the chase for the extraordinary we can sometimes forget to embrace the ordinary moments. It’s about embracing our vulnerabilities and learning to ask for help. We also need to invest in others without expecting returns – because that’s real love.

And it’s about realizing that your time is valuable — what you do with it, how you spend it and with whom.

 

It’s picking yourself up when life knocks you down and finding beauty in your bruises. But this might take years and years to do, it’s not an overnight fix. We are all damaged & broken & traumatized & mistake making in some way or another. But it doesn’t define who we are. So don’t be so hard on yourself. And Don’t be so hard on others.

3 years ago, I literally couldn’t get out of bed. Today marks a HUGE milestone for me. I got out of bed each placement morning (1000’s of hours of free labour) (i wasn’t happy about it lol), I ground myself down, I gritted my teeth and pushed through most of the fatigue & pain, and some how completed 3 years clinical education. Super early mornings, physical lifting, lots of moving, emotional distress, stress, deadline after deadline, many naps where ever I could find them, doritos and a 2 year long headache. And somehow I got here.

Whilst I still live in deep pain, and still haven’t learnt my fatigue limits, and I’ve lost feeling all on my left side, and a headache that often leaves me crippled to the floor. I’m proud of how far I’ve come. Recovery is hard. I don’t think we give enough people credit for that part.

I Never, genuinely – hand on heart –  would have believed any of this would have been possible.

So thank you to YOU ALL.  My mom, my bro, my nan, my amazing friends – old & new, stafff, lecturers, my twitter fam, my internet friends. Anyone and everyone.
Without your advise, support, jokes, cleaning, food, tears, stories, knowledge and just being there and accepting I take 7-10 business days to return a text/email – I’m not so sure this would be the blog update it is today.

I plan on using all of my time allocated.

And I can’t believe I’m here.

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This is a wonderful way to think about friendship

“the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all.”

— Hanya Yanagihara,  A Little Life 

This is a beautiful book, but a devastating read. Proceed with caution, feint of heart.

The things I’ve learned from a broken mirror

Saving a life doesn’t change the world, but for that person, the world changes forever.

I’m right at the bittersweet end of my 3 years of  BSc Hons radiation-oncology school training. Assuming I pass the last few things, in 3 weeks I’ll be technically allowed, once my HCPC registration and license and indemnity insurance comes through, to plan, care for and treat people who have cancer with radiotherapy. Which is really scary. I will be responsible and liable by law for the safety of my patients.

And yet, the 3 years has gone past in a whirl-wind. It has been both long (no thanks to working clinically all through the summers) and extremely fast. Energizing and completely ball-breakingly fatiguing. A mixture of: I’m not ready to be qualified yet to I just want to do the job, already! Slowly ticking off endless assignment after endless assignment. Slowly being able to reflect upon how far we have come.

And now I write this post. With a cool raspberry lemonade in one hand, I stare out of the window with the sun in my eyes and feel kind of relaxed for the first time in a long time.

Doing this course was a massive risk for me.

I had nothing and everything to loose.

Here’s what I’ve learnt:

A few years ago (y’all know the story), my original life had become broken by ill-health and everything changed.  No one should ever underestimate the lack of quality of life living with horrible, endless, chronic pain and fatigue offers.  And as a result, my old life just didn’t fit in the same way anymore. So, after drawing people wanting to change the NHS to make it better using their health experiences, and this personal medical experience of mine – I decided to give up my planned life of being a full-time artist and retrain in healthcare (with the perspective of an artist). This was because I needed to get closure, to understand the human-body, to gain some control from this knowledge, and a routine – to try and ease the fatigue (that turned out to be a LOL – there’s no rest in healthcare): but most of all, my biggest motivator was  to try and make a difference and really care for others.

This was because the NHS was the first place I had been shown any real true kindness  from complete strangers when I was at my most weakest. I felt (& I feel it even more now than ever) this pit of gratitude at the bottom of my stomach when I think about the care I have been given & continue to receive – from everyone in the NHS, not just doctors & HCP but to the students, receptionists and porters, ect.

From my GP (the awesome Dr. Marco Pieri) who would say we’re friends. And in the beginning, I thought that saying we were friends was weird.  I was suspicious. It’s just his job? I knew nothing about him.  But as I grew older with him, and cried on him when I was at my lowest (i don’t ever cry in front of people), and moaned, and repeated the same endless complaints at him -much to his dismay – he built up this incredible knowledge about me as a person – not just what was wrong with me. He asks me about my work, my life in general and about my fears. He asks me what I want to do in regards to my care and he gives me lil’ prep talks (even unsolicited NHS job interview advise) by telling me to keep going and just to live life to the fullest (fo’ serious). He was one of the first people I told (by chance) that I got this awesome fully-funded PhD scholarship. He stopped me from jumping around from random GP to GP, because I didn’t understand the importance of continuity in care at the time. I feel like he intrinsically cares – not just for my wellbeing – but for the whole population of Doncaster after discussions with him on his passion for improving life expectancy & outcomes for the Donx to meet the rest of the population (thus his role as a clinical lead in the Doncaster CCG).

It turns out that he is in fact both Physician and detective, and through time, he also became both healer & friend. And through experiencing a lot of his kindness, his humor, his knowledge, his time & care – I felt like I needed to return it.  I wanted to be that person he was for me – for my patients; to make them feel cared for and valued. To not feel insignificant when you’re at your most vulnerable.

What I’ve learnt is that patients have been my best teachers, but some of my lessons have been painful.

I  have learnt from their  incredibly life affirming stories of hope, humor, achievement and tragedy and heartbreak. There was a woman whose volunteer hospital transport driver turned out to be her long-lost niece – found and reunited together through daily drives to & from radiotherapy treatment. I’ve treated gold-medal winners from the Olympics 50 years ago, pilots, magazine publishers. I’ve seen people go home and back with nothing but the clothes on their back- for 7 weeks, heard stories of amazing neighbours and learnt a lot about people’s pets. I’ve heard horrific stories that just needed to be told and heard – of death, loss, and abuse. Every day is a day where I take at least someone home in my head. Some fade away, eventually. Though 3 years on – there’s some patients who are etched onto my mind and I don’t know why some really stay with you.  I stopped checking up on them post-treatment because quite a few have died since- and it makes me feel incredibly sad. These people who we often just shared 2 or 3 weeks together at 10 mins + at a time become significant to me. And  I hope I never loose this into qualification.

 

It will be weird not being with #teamleeds, every day; My friends who we’ve gone through and seen a lot together. These stories bound us together. They’re like brothers and sisters now. I imagine this is kind of how joining the army feels, but instead it’s a healthcare course.  It will be weird not joining in on a random Facebook conversation, not having to panic about the endless deadlines and  unclear learning objectives. My closest friends (most of them younger than me) on the course have taught me a lot about growing up. I’ve managed to have a second ‘coming of age’ experience through being good friends in their journey. We’ve travelled when we could together, hosted parties and feasts of food. Shared and supported each other through tragedies, deadlines, successes and the crazy profound things life throws at you. I am completely in awe of these now 21 year olds who are mature before their years. And I think about how their strength is true testament to how I’ve managed to get here – 3 years on. At the beginning of the course, we said that we would drag each other through to the very bittersweet end. And here we are, 3 weeks to go, still dragging each other. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for them, egging us on.

Then there is the staff at the place where I’ve trained, they have been incredible. They’re passionate about education and patient care and safety. They love radiotherapy. They’ve shown me time, enthusiasm and exactly what being a compassionate healthcare professional should look like. I’ve learnt how to ask questions, without being too leading. I’ve learnt to hear for things not actually said, but implied, by patients so that I know if they need more extra support. I feel incredibly indebted to them for their knowledge and time (and patience!). I hope that we stay friends at the end because they’re such great fun people. And I can’t thank my tutors enough for all of their guidance and knowledge in helping me shape me as a healthcare professional!

What I’ve learnt in my Healthcare education (both officially and as a patient) is that everyone in the NHS has a reason to do what they do: It’s almost never about money or our quality of life. It’s because we can make a difference. All any of us ever want to do is to make other people’s lives better. Sometimes it’s life-changing, sometimes it’s something much simpler.

Sometimes things don’t work the way we should. The system isn’t perfect. Neither are the people in it. But it is fundamentally decent and good and whole. That’s why I am absolutely committed to the principles, to the ideals of the NHS. I think it’s just about the best thing this country has ever achieved. It is remarkably robust, but the pressures facing it are immense, and there are few easy solutions. But we – the people of the NHS – ALL STAFF- are absolutely committed to it.

What I’ll always remember from my education in radiotherapy – and that crazy 3 years of unpaid labour – will be the stories that made these people into NHS.

Being a radiotherapy student has given me a lot of perspective and new skills I never knew I could do.  I’Ve learnt that whenever you can’t think of something to say in a conversation, ask people questions instead. Even if you’re next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts, and you never know when it will be useful.

Life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.

And life can be incredibly short. So see as many sunrises and sunsets as you can. Run across roads to smell fat roses. Always believe you can change the world – even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it. Think of yourself as a silver rocket – use loud music as your fuel; books like maps and co-ordinates for how to get there. Host extravagantly, love constantly, dance in comfortable shoes,  and never, ever start smoking.

Thank you to the whole of the NHS for your love, and kindness, and education. It turns out studying Radiotherapy turned out to be WAY more than just a degree at the end. 

I have learnt, through pain,  that I am more than my pain, more than what was built & burned, more than all I’ve lost. You will get to build again. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to share this adventure with the people who’ve helped you.   Remember it ain’t always about where you start, but it’s about where you’re going and end up.

To the last 3 weeks!

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0-5.jpg *Hope I pass!*

 

 

It takes more than biology to be a mom.

Today is mothers day in the UK. I know it’s actually quite a tough time out there for all the people who, sadly,  no longer have their moms in their lives, and all those people who have difficult relationships with their moms currently.

I know the latter feeling, but on fathers day instead. When I was younger, I’d get kind of jealous of people who had these amazing and supportive relationships with their fathers. For me, the first 14 years of my life – my relationship with my father was an extremely strained one. He either wasn’t there at all and when he was, he was a complete dick. He was abusive and an alcoholic. He made my mom, bro and i homeless when I was 15. And I always felt like it was my fault that he didn’t love me.  When I was 19, he tried to make up for his errors, he got in touch after 4 years of disappearing – and I decided to give him a chance, because that’s the buddhist way – but you maybe able to forgive but you can’t forget. Or you can forget but you can’t forgive. I’m not sure which catogry I put myself in.  He’s better than he was before, but maybe that’s because we don’t see each other, but he still has his drinking and his mean side which comes out when he only ever calls me when he’s drunk. Now I’m older, I realized I didn’t need him anyways.

I tell you all this because anyone can be a mother or a father – but it takes more than biology to be a mom or dad.  Whilst I never really had a ‘dad’, I had many people in my life that stepped up and became like a father-role model in my life, and did more than my real father ever did. Although, it takes time for me to trust any man in my life now.

But my mom was both my mom & dad. She was there for everything. She was my rock. She taught me how to fix lights and plugs. She taught me how to cook. She was the person at parents evening, she was the one who saw me off to prom, she gave me boy advise, and bought me my first alcohol underage (working class doncaster parenting). She was the one who would ground me. She was the one who worked 2 jobs to pay the rent. She was the one who has supported my decisions through not 1 but 2 degrees. She’s the one who has moved me between 100’s of university housing, she’s the one who tells me to follow my heart, and never ever tells me to do something because that’s what societally expected of me. Like saving up for flights rather than houses. She’s brought me up to believe in who I am, to never change, to feel safe in trying new things & taking chances because even if I fail she will be there to catch me when I fall and loose everything. And I know this because she was there when I lost everything. When I fell really poorly.

Getting sick was really shit. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t even watch bbc iplayer.  This though, just made our relationship stronger. She’s been with me every step of the way. She let me off with rent, she tries to cook my favourite dishes to get me to come back home on weekends. She understood why I needed to go into healthcare. She told me to apply for the PhD instead of encouraging a radiotherapy job – because she knows deep down that actually that would probably make me more happy. Getting to combine both of my loves: art and healthcare. Now i feel blessed and grateful for every single extra day that we get together. I never take for granted the time we get alotted, and i know that if i could follow her in her kindness, giving, and work-ethic – i would become a better person.

But the crazy thing is, they say it takes a village to raise a child. And it does. We may only ever have one ‘mom’, but we actually have a lot of moms in our lives. These are the people , our friends, who live 1000’s of miles away who happen to be someone elses mom – but they’re the next person you tell your good news to: like getting your degree, or getting an interview. They’re your friends who when you’re going through a tough time offer to do your washing, or shopping. They’re your friends who pick you up at the hospital. Who send you texts/tweets to see how you’re doing. They’re the professional friends who help you apply for the things you need/want, and take a chance on you, see something in you, and put their neck on the line to help you. Who forgive you when you do something stupid. Who offer their home to you. All of these, asking for nothing in return.

Because that’s what moms do. They give selflessly, make time, not doing something for themselves but for you instead – and they want or ask for nothing in return. So in a way, our good friends are also some of the best moms in our lives.

I’m the person who I am today, because my mom has taught me to be kind, be gentle, be true to yourself. When I felt like I might be dying, all I could think of was my mom. I thought you know, I’ve had this amazing life. And my mom made sure it could be the best it could be despite the horrific poverty and domestic violence we found ourselves in.  We now both know, intrinistictly that nothing is certain, everything is up in the air, and our time is limited – so we never take anything for granted and we both encourage each other to YOLO. regularly.

Sometimes people tell me they think I’m independent. But actually this is just something my mom has taught me because she’s one of the most strongest, courageous, and incredibly giving, resourceful and resilient people I’ve ever met. And without her I would be truly lost. I love you mom, and I am forever grateful for every minute we get together and for all the sacrifices you give us.

Happy mothers day to all the amazing moms our there, whether its our real mom, or  our friends who fill in those motherly roles from time to time.

Thanks for understanding my heart. It means so much to me. Big shout out to all the work and chances you give us all.

For those who find today difficult, you’re not alone. I’m here 🙂

Much love,

Your friend, smizz x

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1 year older, Casting Lines.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m getting old. I found my 10th grey hair today (yes I’m counting) But I’m still here. I’m still alive.  And it amazes me. But there’s a lot I don’t know. And there’s a lot I’m still learning. I’ll be Nickel on the periodic table. Nickel is a silvery white metal that takes on a high polish. It is hard, malleable, ductile, somewhat ferromagnetic, and a fair conductor of heat and electricity. Ni-64 is used for the production of Cu-64 which is used in radioimmunotherapy. Ni-61 can be used for the production of the PET radioisotope Cu-61. Which puts me in good company.

But turning a different number has less significance than having your first child or losing a family member. Those are real Life milestones.

When I was younger, I was worried I was going to be behind. I was always in hurry to do everything. Most people get a foundation degree before art school. I managed to convince art schools I didn’t need one. Then I mixed my masters with my undergraduate degree & completed them at the same time – it made me one of the youngest people in the UK with an art BA & MA at the time (First class, too). I went to summer camp as soon as I was allowed to apply for a J1 work visa. I went to NYC as soon as I was allowed to rent a hotel room alone (and worked 2 jobs to pay for it). Now I’m so behind my peers. And I want to slow down time. I sometimes wish maybe I should have taken my time & not rushed things. Smelled the roses, as they say. But There’s never enough time.  And now I’m in a place where I feel like I’m living on extra time I wasn’t expecting — which is pretty sweet. 

When I look at my photos of 2015 I think of the juxtaposition of beautiful scenery with private pain. Emerging from this exacting year, I am grateful (but still pissed off & frustrated with having pain) for the suffering because of how much it has taught me – and continues to do so, and how it made me even more compassionate to others. The kind of tumult I’m in is both a physical and an internal one, and it doesn’t detract from my gratitude that I am able to live a life involving new places, meet new people, laugh with friends, care for people in need, learn new stuff, see delightful sights and eat beautiful meals (most of which are cooked by my mom). It’s taught me that it’s always possible to find wonder in the world despite things being tough, because the world is full of wonderful things and people. These fleeting moments of awe, strung together with acts of kindness, kept me afloat.

I can’t help but feel severely indebted to everyone who’s helped me along my journey, especially in my search for a resolution. For all those people who ‘took a chance’ on me. For everyone who has replied to my late emails or who’ve reached out to me. For all my friends who’ve been right beside me, whether it be when I’m having a good time or when I’m tucked into my bed, drenched in my own cold sweat .

Who knows what 2016 will bring, but as my last day as 27 winds to a close I have learnt more, dug deeper, and thinking of my next year ahead. I want to take the an opportunity to redefine many things as well as to recapture certain values and certain things that are potentially important for me and for people in general…The importance of giving back is starting to be theme for me. I want to be generous to the people who have helped me out. I want to make sure not to ‘ghost’ on people either. In order to be credible, you must be authentic and true. I’m starting to write my proposal for my PhD in creative practices as a means of moving health research evidence and interventions into everyday practice. I’ve already applied for 2 of my first radiotherapy posts (probs. won’t get interview, like). Moderation in everything. Don’t be an asshole and don’t be a pushover. Change is the only constant in Life. It moves forward regardless of how hard you resist. Be kind. Be empathetic. Take care of your parents. Cultivate relationships with those that matter, those that genuinely care about you. Embrace them with your whole heart.

My birthday’s tomorrow, but help me celebrate since I’ll be spending the whole weekend revising. Donate time/things/currency to Yorkshire Cancer Research , Doncaster Cancer Detection Trust and/or another cause that’s close to your heart! Feeling blessed and lucky to have such great friends and family.

As for Birthday plans after my exam on Monday: Heading straight to laser quest, drinks, movies & some good ol’ pho in Sheffield. It’s going to be a birthday week.

2015: thanks for giving me what I needed and teaching me what I didn’t understand. You were challenging & profound.

Hoping for a 2016 where we open the doors wider and take care of each another

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I am hoping for 2016 to be a year where we open the doors wider and take care of each another

Susan Sontag wrote in her “Illness as metaphor” (1978) essay ,

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. “

I’ve found myself asking myself, “Smizz, how do you get from here to there? ” I’ve spent the last few years trying to find my way back to the kingdom of the well. 2015 was all about screwing up maps, getting really, really lost. Like I’ve been using Bing maps instead of google maps.  I feel like my good-healthy passport needs renewing.

I get good days, even weeks, only to be knocked down by by more complications, more intense symptoms.  Life wasn’t going my way, but that’s something I’ve been learning to get used to and it happens to us all. I definitely cope better now,  but what I can’t get used to is the feeling of being broken.

And what’s scary is that most of this is happening to us all, in some shape or form: depression, low-self-esteem, a loved one being sick, unemployment, abuse, bullying, war. ect. At some point, we all loose our footing. And in the wake of trauma, sure footing can be hard to find.

When all this started, and I thought I was going to loose my life,  I was full of regret.

I had a good life –  But  why did I spend so much time on Facebook ? There was so much more I wanted to do, places I was worried I was never going to see. I always wanted to have a border collie puppy. I always wanted to own an american fridge with an ice maker (not sure why, I don’t even like ice in my drinks). But here i was thinking I’d never have any of that. And what about my artwork, my art-life? I had dedicated nearly 7 years of my life to what I was doing. And I had left it behind, without saying a word to most people except close friends.

I wrote a will. I settled my affairs – they told me to. And i was terrified because I’m an artist – and i was seeing a future where if I go blind, I might not get to do my work anymore.
But I’m alive. I’m alive! And I’ve learnt that there’s a big difference between surviving and living.

 

So in 2013, I was slumped over with fatigue. I barely got out of bed. But what I do realized then was that I couldn’t just keep living my same old life anymore because it just didn’t fit anymore. The stakes had changed. My life view was flipped. All that stuff i thought was important, turned out not to be that important.

In 5 months time, I HOPEFULLY will be a qualified radiotherapist.  I’ve spent the past 2 years being pulled through my course by my amazing friends and family whilst managing horrible, horrible side-effects/symptoms?.  I will be qualified to deliver radiotherapy treatments, create treatment plans,  innovate and care  for my patients and their carers going through the cancer pathway.  And I’m super excited and shit-scared. I took on this course for a number of reasons: One was to help me cope & have some understanding of the human body, and genetics and control, 2 was to give back to the NHS and to emulate the great care I was given & to irradicate the poor care I saw too. But ultimately it was to help make the difference I want to see, to make the pathway better for others. To enhance and help empower patients and their carers narratives. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt is when you’re sick – you feel vulnerable and voiceless.

And at first, this change was really, really hard. I’ve questioned my decision maybe a 1000 times. But it still feels right, even when I have to do 100 pointless academic tasks and I miss having free days to make and draw things I want to make.  But together with my friends we organized the (2014 & 2015) first student led Raditation oncology conference, I made the first radiotherapy patient information app, got a drawing published in journal of medical imaging and radiation sciences, won an award for my app, and presented at the international  Design4health conference, did some clinical experience in North America,  and went viral with this blog post about what we do in radiotherapy,  raised £850 for Doncaster Cancer Detection Trust and some more. All through combining art and radiation practice and empathy. All in 2015.

If you asked me 5 years ago if I saw myself here – the answer would have been – what’s radiotherapy? And errr nO?! If you asked me at the beginning of my course if I would be in 3rd year now, I wouldn’t have been so sure. But now here i am, trying to adapt healthcare research with creative methodologies.

l’ve experienced chronic pain and fatigue. I realized how debilitating it can be, and how rarely we take the time to understand it in others.  But this lesson is still being learnt. The experience is humbling and, more than anything, made me much more aware of – and empathetic to – the hurt that we ignore.

This, in particular, is my motivation going into 2016. My resolution (although I hate the word “resolution”; it sounds flimsy and self-obsessed) is to take more time recognizing the pain in others and offering solace whenever possible. I aim to keep the dialogue open with all of you, whether online or in-person. I want us to be open, and warm, even in the face of the unknown. Always believe you can change the world – even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it – and one person CAN change the world.

2016 maybe full of joy for you. It maybe full of challenges. It’ll probably be full of both. However it all plays out, remember that we have each other. Don’t wait to be asked for help; you’re already being beckoned.

I started 2015 feeling lost in transition, the pain was really, really grinding me down. I cried like twice on clinical placement because I felt behind & that I’ve got a lot to loose, I gave up my art life. There’s no roadmap to picking up the pieces of a broken life.  So I’ve been drawing my own roadmap, and somewhere along the way, I’ve started to feel like I’m living again with the help of all of YOU – my friends.  I’ve visited 5 new countries this year. I chased the Northern Lights with my friends, we rode under Niagra Falls, we drank thrugh the worst icelandic storm of 30 years. And as I  have watched the ocean many times this year, it reminded that the suns set, but it will  rise again and everything keeps moving. But we don’t get forever. And that’s ok. We just have to make sure the stuff that counts, really fucking counts.

 

I hope that 2016 will hopefully bring me some more closure, and I’m hoping for less headahce, much less fatigue, more adventures, taking more photographs, seeing friends, better email action, laughter, fun, love and hope. And finishing & passing my degree without a nervous breakdown (lol) . And hopefully a job offer, if I’m lucky. You never know what the road has planned though.

Happy New Year friends,

With so much gratitude for you for getting me here

Unconditional love, lets make the world a better place in 2016!

Your good friend Smizz x

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I don’t want to waste any more of my time. That’s all: A look back upon my 2015

 

Getting sick was (is) the worst thing that ever happened to me, but

Last week Facebook memories reminded me that the exact week in 2012, I wrote on my Facebook status that I was finally seeing a NHS haemotologist oncologist after my crazy USA medical adventure. I have certain dates etched into my collective memory, which feel like I’ll never be able to erase , even if I wanted to. But this date had slipped my memory.  In the facebook status I wrote how many people had sent so many great and supportive messages and had helped me so much. The same still stands today.
Every so often I get a message from someone who’s heard my story, seen my whining tweets/blog,  or I get contacted by various volunteer coordinators for my work with and fundraising for various charities.
Every time, I’m nervous about how the call or the email will go.
But what happens is that they get in touch and often share with me these amazing, personal, intimate stories. These stories are of hardship, courage, loneliness, heaviness, of life and death. Of feeling disempowered, the feeling of the weight of time.
Will I be able to help them? What will I say to this person who’s going through what I know is probably the hardest thing they’ve ever done? I see and feel it every day at work too.
And EVERY TIME, every day I’m amazed.
Amazed by how optimistic and brave people can be, even when they’re terrified. Amazed that even when their life, or loved ones life, was/is on the line and there’s little they can do, we can laugh together about pain, side effects, the dumb things that go along with this life with whatever the struggle is.
Raising money to try and get Radiotherapy in Doncaster ( http://justgiving.com/sarah-smizz1 ) has opened up another opportunity for people to share their stories with me. I feel constantly humbled, and touched that they’ve chosen to share their narrative with me, and want to support me too.
 It reminded me of this website a friend showed me based in Canada, about the faces of healthcare. I think I am going to make something similiar in the UK. I am going to create a beautiful visual platform to help share peoples stories to help us learn from and build better connections and services, and make us think as healthcare professionals how we connect with people. And to also help celebrate not only these peoples lives & struggles, but also how awesome the NHS and it’s staff are too.
This time of year always makes my wounds feel rawer, but my need to thank and be grateful gets more intense too.
 Getting sick was (is) the worst thing that ever happened to me, but in so many ways it brought out the best in me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it does the same in others.
3 weeks & 5 days till I can go OTT on giving thanks. FRIENDSGIVING, and y’all are all invited 🙂

Post Traumatic Growth – Trying to Make Sense of Things

One thing that my friends know about me, is that I constantly think about our existence.

As a kid, during computer club after-school – after printing out a million pictures of Lil’ Bow Wow to add to my collage shrine to the pint-sized rapper – I then pretended to be a 16/17 year old on a Philosophy Forum (I was about 13/14). I didn’t grow up with books, no one in my family is interested in the human condition – in fact I grew up with the plight of survival – the art of just getting by. On whatever that was. Ketchup sandwiches for lunch because that’s all we had in the house, and the rent was due – and in massive arreas. But I constantly thought that there must be more. I would devoure and try to understand these philosophical ideas on time, and fate, and existence. Ultimately – being.

By the time I got to university, by myself, by my own hardwork – and my own investment and time – with some guidance from a few teachers that believed in me at school – I started to think that the shit that I had endured years of my life – was part of a destined path. An experience I had to learn from. It taught me about social justice, the differences between in having very, very little and having a decent amount, it made me know that society is unfairly distributed – the marxist in me. I thought that it was practice – to give me a sense of what it’s like – and that I had got to where I was (uni) so I had some tools, a way to help make a difference, using this experience in hand. I had – and still continue to do so – imposter syndrome though. I thought I’d drop out, that I wouldn’t be smart enough, ect, ect. But the complete opposite happened and I always quote my best friends at uni as the reason why I fell head over heels in love with art, with learning, with working even harder than I ever had before on this passion of mine.

I’d think of all the factors that lead me to meeting them, and decided it was fate. That I had acted in a specific way, met all these people- specifically for a reason. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have had a specific experience, they wouldn’t have helped me, ect. That it was kind of written in the stars.

Now, maybe it is – probably it isn’t. The logical person in me says – no way. It’s just coincidence and it would be the same outcomes irrespectively because I’m a pretty decent judge of character.  The person – which is by far a bigger part of me – knows that psychological this is some sort of coping mechanism. And that actually, every person brings something different to any and every situtation. And I know a kid from my background has actually jumped a bunch of odds, and so I believe it’s some sort of fate thing. But i know I haven’t got here alone.

When I fell sick. I couldn’t get out of bed. I think back to when I was around 24 – and I actually can’t remember that year very well at all because I spent so little of it conscious. I couldn’t reply to emails – I’d go to sleep at 6-7pm, and not get up until 1-2PM and I’d force myself to get up – I’d attempt some drawing commission work for 3 hours or so. Waiting for 5-6pm to come back around as a decent time to get showered and go back to bed and replay this whole cycle. Over and over. Every minute awake felt like I was being crushed, I’d have day-chills, nose-bleeds, nightsweats, and the worst pain.

I felt like I was going to die. I was angry, upset, in pain, why me? I had lost who I had spent so many years building. Smizz the kid who’d reply an email in an instant, who could juggle a bazillion things at once, who kept down and writing and who couldn’t understand why others couldn’t be as committed to making the change. I lost that. I had lost my identity. But it didn’t matter anyways – because was it even important? Crisis, or what.

But through my health experience, I naturally did what I had done throughout my life. There was some sort of reason why this had happened to me, surely. Just another lesson. I still feel shit, and I have a bunch of stuff that constantly keeps happening to me.  I knew this awful experience – throughout the healthcare system – meant that I could change it – even if it was just being there to listen to patients. My shitty health changed me.

Occasionally I feel stronger than I did before,  more spontaneous and open to new experiences and even quicker to laugh. I might still sweat the unimportant stuff – like ePortfolio, an exam, but I know deep down it’s kind of meaningless in the greater scheme of things.  Not that I haven’t struggled. I still have to deal with disorienting symptoms daily, and there are still days when I’m stopped in my tracks by grief. I still mourne the loss of the old Smizz. I constantly see my GP – like every few months, a plead with him that there’s got to be a way to stop feeling this fatigue, to stop feeling the pain.  Even so, I try and use all these experiences as a springboard.

I made the RADCARE radiotherapy Patient information app – which won an award. I won the Health & Wellbeing Student Award for Leadership, I’m quite proud that my patients seem to give really nice feedback about me to my mentors on clinical placement, I’ve drawn loads of stuff to help change patient experience, patient involvement, to engage people across the spectrum – from enhancing Prostate cancer care, to Dying Matters and the End Of Life Care Pathway, and now I’m going to Toronto – and Harvard over the next 2 months to learn more and bring back these experiences to see if I can begin to invigorate the pathways for better supportive care.

People always think jumping from art to healthcare is a jump. And perhaps it is. But I don’t really see it as that. In my many hours spent trawling through the internet looking for explanations, looking for things that can help with my pain/fatigue. I found that there’s a name for how I’ve built myself.  post-traumatic growth (PTG), a term coined by Richard Tedeschi, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Dozens of studies have shown that trauma survivors can change in profound ways. And it goes well beyond resilience, or bouncing back from adversity. “With post-traumatic growth, a person who has faced difficult challenges doesn’t just return to baseline, which is what happens with resilience,” explains Tedeschi. “They change in fundamental, sometimes dramatic, ways.”

Whilst I still mourn my old life, how I could stay up later and was pain free -and ultimately more care-free. I’m not super sure I would change it on reflection. I feel wiser, I feel more emphatic, I know what’s important – my family & friends, I’m less of dick now, I feel even more motivated to get out there to help others, I’ve built the most unlikely friendships – even with my doctors – and working in healthcare has opened up way more opportunities for my artistic practice than I ever hoped to believe. I never knew that actually now is the time to be a healthcare worker artist!

now I’m not saying every bad thing has to have a happy ending, acceptance nor do you have to oozze rainbows and sickening positivity – sometimes I think that can be counterproductive too. I think it’s finding meaning on your own terms to give you some ownership to the shitty things that happen that are ultimately usually out of our control.

When I won the award for my app – I felt a huge massive amount of pride. Something I’ve not felt in a really long time. And I think it’s because I designed it – with my experience in hand – with my patients stories in the other – with my passion for making things and wanting to help people. I wouldn’t be here right now if I never fell sick and my life changed in a way I didn’t want it to. I can still barely see where I am going, I’m still amazed I’m still on my course, that I’m still alive. I think I felt the pride because i realized that to get here I’ve had to trust myself, to learn from my bodies failure. To know that I have the bestest friends and family behind me 100% of the way in whatever I do. Because, like I said, without them anyways – i wouldn’t be here now – regardless.