If you think you can’t do something, I think you can.

All my life I’ve felt like people say that I can’t really do stuff. And sometimes it’s said not in a direct way, but through specific actions.  And then I wonder, who are  these people to tell us we can’t achieve something? What’s it to them?

I never was guided to go to university until very late on in the game. I never knew about league tables, I kind of had no real concept of what university was – I knew no one in my life who had been. It was like a foreign concept. I accidentally attended 6th form as a way to avoid full-time work (I worked 2 part-time jobs during my A-Levels instead), it was here that I started to keep the university prospectus shelfs in the 6th form block up to date and in the right place for others to use and inspire. I ordered every single prospectus from across the UK. I remember to this day all the different kind of designs they came in. I’d look at pages of these dreams and hopes like a kid might look at Disney World travel brochure. My teachers encouraged me to apply.

In fact, I used to look at Virgin Atlantic travel brochures too with admiration and fascination. I remembered how I would look at my favourite brouchure regularly and feel like a sensation at wondering just how downtown Vegas and all those millions of lightbulbs would look like. I would close my eyes and will myself to figure what San Francisco would feel and look like blending these pages of travel brochures and movies . It was literally  a million miles away from my only ever been to Doncaster lived life.

I was told that it probably wouldn’t be possible to ever go there. Because, well, we’d never be able to afford it. It was deemed too ambitious – and what exactly would I even DO there?

I’ve now been to San Fran 5 times so far.

I somehow got to university to study fine art, without a foundation degree. I was the youngest in my year. I remember my interviewer at SHU asking me, “why do YOU think YOU can come to university without a foundation degree whilst everyone else has got one?” And my answer was… “Because I’m a Marxist”. I still cringe. But it did the trick. I told him in one sentence that what I lack in technical experience from a foundation degree, I make up in theory and self-sufficient ideas. Very SHU, really.

I went to work at summer camp after my first year of Uni, to work there & use the money from that job to achieve my american travel dreams that I had spent the past 10 years looking at. Here I realized that American kids are taught to believe that can achieve ANYTHING. They can be president if they so wished.  Us Brits? Don’t be ridiculous.

I have wondered about that part of our culture a lot.

Here all my friends were going to be applying for real internships next summer.

In my second year I wanted to start a gallery out of my living room, and my lecturer at the time told me that it would be too much work and I’d never do it.  I applied for an internship at MoMA – knowing fine well that i’d never in a million years get accepted, but it was a great excerise and I used my tutorial with the professor at the time to see if I could name drop him on another NY Gallery application.

I found the bestest people in my life, Postmasters. Who took a chance on a Smizz.

I was so inspired that summer after working there, that I started a bunch of iconic and life changing projects in Sheffield – Including CAKE artspace, which was a small room above a cool bar on West Street. We did so many cool projects over the 2 years we existed. Take-that my 2nd year lecturer who said I couldn’t do it.

I worked in art & political institutions across Chicago, and then mashed my BA & MA up together and graduated with my Masters in Fine art.

I graduated and I failed at getting most opportunities, but I kept on trying. In the meantime I took on jobs to make ends meet – and in these jobs – like Waterstones, I made some of my closest & giving friends. I learnt lots about bookselling and about publishing. I worked on 100’s of projects and started making a name for myself as a live-illustrator. I also used this time to re-connect with my friends and family.

I had to drown out, constantly, people telling me in so many different ways to give up – or that it’ll never happen for me. I even, at times, fell into the trap and would believe the self-doubt, I would wollow in self-pity. But i’d slowly pick myself up and dust off my trousers and start looking for opportunities again – with a lot of help and guidance from friends already in the art game.

I slowly started getting artist residencies in iconic galleries, and travelling the UK for drawing work. The working class kid from the Donx, making it as an emerging artist. Who would have ever believed it? Not me, that’s for sure. And not the people who believe you can never get work from art.

Then I fell sick. And I was rock bottom again.

All of my hardwork. Kind of disappeared over night.

People told me to just give up, because – well, who knows if I’ll ever be the same again. If I’ll ever NOT feel extremely tired. I had to let go of my old life. I refused, and it drove me down further.

And in that time I saw those gaps in the  healthcare system. I saw how people held me up when I was limping and at my lowest. I knew then that I wanted to be THAT person. I wanted to try and help lift someone else up. I wanted to help make society a more equal place. You do that through health equality and care. And I just felt, deep down that an artist could do it because I was sensitive to the system and peoples needs – having a very real patient experience myself.

And so I started looking into which area specifically I wanted to go into. And I chose upon radiotherapy & oncology for its continuity of care, my need to know more about oncology and the team working aspect.

When I applied, I had no healthcare working experience and no science A-Levels. Many universities were reluctant to say that I could *even* apply to do it because of no science – But I had a 1st class Masters. I can learn. I’ve proven this. I had more than enough (straight A’s at A Level) UCAS points.

I paid no attention and applied anyways. And i got interviews everywhere I applied. But even in the interview process I was met with reluctance. 1 university (not SHU) said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not our usual applicant – The NHS is a bit like a conveyer belt – so do you ACTUALLY think you’ll even fit in?”  This threw me, how loaded with judgement and cynicism. I answered, yes I would fit in & much more.

I got offered a place, but SHU was for me. (Cuz I’m SHU until I die, obvs).

Plagued with self-doubt throughout the radiotherapy course, I constantly told myself that I didn’t belong. I had no science background. I was terrible on placement. I had no money. I had my arty habits. I’d think in these weird ways which took me longer to get to the right answer.  I thought that maybe I’d made a miscalculation.  I was sick. I was tired. I was miserable because everytime i didn’t do something right – i’d spend the next 20 mins + doing myself down inside my head – this was a constant cycle for months at a time all day, every week day. This is not the right way to go about it.

It was like I took all the baggage of all the many years of people telling me I couldn’t do something – and built it up into a mirror that I just tormented myself. I never began to believe the hype.

I somehow I got through 2 years of crippling self-doubt. And that was thanks to my friends, and all the supportive staff & people on twitter I had in my life — who thought that I could do it.

I went for my first RT job interview in Jan this year – and they took an instant dislike to me, which is fine. The next day they called to say i never got the job – which was like, duh. I asked for some feedback and they told me that my answers were “really, really good – just TOO detailed. And that they applaud my enthusiasm but they thought I was too ambitious ( which was that my long-term career plans was to enhance patient info by using patient experience [with specific examples] – not too ambitious in my mind)”. Whilst I’m 100% people did way better than me, I felt that that kind of feedback was unhelpful. Another voice just justifying to me my worst fear: that I’d never get a job in radiotherapy because i was too different, that i’m unlikeable, that the exact reason I wanted to go into healthcare to make a difference was seen as too ambitious. That I *couldn’t do that*.

 

Last week I picked up the national student therapy radiography of the year award, I won a bunch of awards for my first ever RT patient info app, I got my research chosen to be shown at the annual radiotherapy conference in Jan next year 

And today I graduated with 4 prizes for: most innovative research project, highest clinical marks, highest clinical and academic marks, and highest mark in PRO 3 (2nd year) module. 

I got my full scholarship to do the craziest PhD ever – combined all of this together — to, you guessed it, try and make a difference. To be ambitious there. (Although I am now riding myself with the same self-doubt and imposter syndrome that I had during my RT degree).

And this all came from people telling me that I couldn’t do it.

So I will take a leaf from this book of lessons.

When you want to make a positive change, whether that’s in the system or for yourself – and people say “you’ll never be able to get a job in that” or “you’ll never get accepted because you don’t have X” or “You’re just too ambitious” or “You haven’t got the right marks” or “That’s not HOW we do it,” Or “it’ll never happen cuz people won’t get it/don’t want it/people higher up won’t invest in it”

Do it anyways, try it. Test it out. It might be wrong. It might take longer than you expected. There might be loads of tears and headaches. Your relationships might be tested. But if you really believe, and you think it’s right. You’ll find a way through the bushes, or hanging across the cliffs. It might not be safe. But you’ll get there or learn something to use in the next move.

As Samuel Beckett says: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

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Love Is Love Is Love: Working To Make Things Better

Around 5 years ago, my life changed in a fatal kind of way. When I was in America, I was given a diagnosis that made feel like I was looking down a barrel of a gun and made me question everything in my life. This crazy plot twist, that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Tramedy, set off a bunch of things in my life. The past 4-ish years have been personally-health-awful, but yet through this difficult time this happened:

Last night I picked up my crazy amazing big prestigious award from the Houses of Commons, like some kind of rock-star. It was surreal, and I’ll probably never get another opportunity to experience something like it. But it was such an incredible evening and I met so many amazing, talented, smart, giving and generous people who work within healthcare,  specifically within radiography and oncology care. We should be so proud to have these people – and people not acknowledged working day in and out within the NHS just like them – and in our country.

It’s more than anyone could ask for and it’s an absolute rare privilege; To be recognized for trying your best to help others. I’ve never really been acknowledged before,  but I can’t help but feel heavy with gratitude to everyone who got me here, as thanked previously in many, many blog posts previously. Because this award is just representative of everyone who got me here.  There is no greater gift than being able to be part of something bigger than yourself, trying to make things better for others. And so the honour of being part of narrative alone is incredible.

Then I got home, back to the north, anxious about the U.S.A. Elections, fell asleep and awoke to Trump president-elect.

When I fell sick, I had so much angst because I felt like there was so much left to do and so much more love to give in life. I’d cry because I felt sorry for myself. And I felt ashamed even more for behaving that way, for being weak. But then on reflection I realized that the tears  flowed because they needed to. Because things were building up instead of me like a pressure cooker, and I wanted to keep moving forward.

I was crying because I wanted to live, because I was afraid of not being here.  And I was afraid of being forgotten.

So having gone through that, and 2015 UK General Election and Brexist Ref vote – I figured we need a hope-of sorts – a plan of sorts. Here’s what I’ve learnt from my few years living invisibly and wanting so bad to enjoy life again. And how Brexit, and Trump and a million refugees stuck around the world make you feel powerless and everything is lost. But

Trust me when I say this time is short & this life is both terrible & beautiful.

Resentment & anger are inevitable & sometimes are important, temporarily,  but it’s important to not take up residence in that place. I PROMISE you deserve better. Even if you voted Trump. You do deserve better.

I promise you there are people who will leave you in life, but that others will embrace you unconditionally in your brokenness.

So you go out & run fearlessly in the direction of love. You are never alone. Your tribe is out there. GO GET IT. And please keep laughing. Joy is salvation. In the darkest, lowest moments, being able to find something, anything to laugh about can save you.

We never stop. We never give up. We fight for each other and protect each other.

Living and giving kindness is the best revenge. 

The most creative challenge of our lives is learning how to approach our own inner darkness with curiosity, empathy, and friendliness.

And that’s where it’s all going to come together.

Sometimes in life, if you are very lucky, you find the grace in having it all blow up in your face.

Our jobs for the day (life): Tell the truth; Be kind & curious; Love all people with all your heart; Don’t put up with any bullshit. 

Love Is Love Is Love, we’ve had a bunch of set-back but that just means we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but lets keep working to make things better – for ourselves and for those who are voiceless, victimised, invisible or who can’t say it for themselves. There is so much more that what unites us than what divides us.

Our work isn’t done, and we need each other and others less fortunate than us, who are REALLY struggling need us. So don’t wait to be called, because you’re already being beckoned.

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Taming the beast in a complex system

Last week I had my first medium-plus allergic reaction to Shellfish (I think). I didn’t even eat it, I just ate rice that had been cooked with it. The kicker is, I don’t even LIKE Shellfish.

Literally within an hour my face swelled up (not like Hitch style but pretty bad never the less) & my throat became ridiculously itchy & sore, and I became wheezy like when you have an asthma attack. Needless to say, i wasn’t best impressed with this new hyper-sensitive immune system of mine. I hadn’t been to see a doctor in literally months, and i was hoping to keep it that way. Damn.

I had to go to the urgent care center, where I was given steroids, more anti-histamines, and a GP appointment. My GP prescribed me my first EpiPen, and a referral to an immunologist.

Today I picked up my EpiPen. I’ve never seen one up close before.

My GP gave me strict instructions about how to use it, & that I can see the practice nurse to show me how, and that I should call an ambulance if i use it & that I’ll always have to carry it and anti-histamines with me for the rest of my life now “just incase”.

But what struck me was the design of it.

It’s really quite big! And I wonder how smaller people (kids etc) carry their EpiPens about if they don’t bring a backpack? Its design is a bit impractical. They’re reliable, sure. They’ll buy a patient who’s in the midst of a severe allergic reaction a few crucial minutes to make their way to the hospital.

But they’re also bulky. Their epinephrine solution isn’t particularly shelf-stable, and will easily degrade in temperatures that are too low or too high (too cold in a bag in the winter? too hot in a jeans pocket perhaps?) and its expiry date on mine is in about a years time. So not very long.

I had a quick google to see if there was other designs available. In America, there was 100s of news articles on the esculating price tag: apparently a pack of two EpiPens now lists for $608 in the USA. (I checked the cost for the NHS & it’s £23.99 for 1 single dose).

This revealed that there’s a design patent on it until 2025. One company owns the monopoly of the EpiPen. & because of this, the design flaws of it for the user, are the profit for company. If it’s too big to carry, you’re more likely to buy more (in the US anyways) to store in other places or for back-ups.

Accidental injections seem pretty common, and instructions are relatively simple, but, adrenaline is invariably used in highly stressful situations, in order to treat a severe allergic reaction. As the auto-injector was originally designed for use in the military, the users were well trained to manage in these circumstances and the user group generally consisted of healthy adult males. Nowadays the devices are given to people of all ages, and with children suffering more from anaphylaxis than any other age group, the device has to be appropriate for a wide range of user groups.

On the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Dr Boyle highlighted how having to respond to a stressful situation can affect the person administering the drug. In his trial, more than half of the intensively trained parents were unable to correctly operate the devices in an emergency.

He cited some of the common errors associated with auto-injectors: holding them the wrong way round, failing to remove the safety cap and not pressing hard enough. They also discussed how little research into the efficacy of the device has been done because studies can cause severe allergic reactions in test subjects, plus real life situations are likely to occur in public and not in clinical settings. All of these issues have resulted in little drive to improve the devices over the last 50 years, leaving key issues unaddressed. (1)

The very fact that the EpiPen has been dominant for so long makes it hard for challengers to come in with a radically different design.

So, what does all of this mean? Well… there’s a HUGE Challenge for someone to make a MASSIVE difference to 1,000’s & 1,000’s of people, but also challenging in being able to design everything that is needed into an EpiPen (engineering, plastics, drugs, function, deisgn, safety etc) that’s life-style-functional & more cost effective long-term (shelf-life etc).

It highlights that instead of trying to carve out a focused segment of healthcare or a specific specialty of design, we should be re-framing these conversations about healthcare improvement around a set of challenges.

No one person or one organization can take on the whole system, but collectively we can make significant, people-centered change happen. I wrote on my blog last night about ‘critical making‘ – If there is one element that is sorely lacking in healthcare, it’s the ability to prototype, to critically make.

It can seem like a beast of a system can healthcare: its big, complex, and delivering on one of the most complex industries. But I’m trying to keep practicing at staying awake and trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

 

Who knew some Shellfish and an EpiPen  experience would be showing me and putting into practice that listening can tell you who you are. That paying attention can give us the change and the meaning that we so badly seek.

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(1) BBC Radio 4, Inside Health, Wed 7 October 2015http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flmg7

other readings:
Adrenaline auto-injector advice for patients, UK Gov.ukhttps://www.gov.uk/…/adrenaline-auto-injector-advice-for-pa…

Adrenaline auto-injectors, European Medicines Agencyhttp://www.ema.europa.eu/ema/index.jsp…

How Mylan tried to keep Teva from selling a generic EpiPenhttps://www.statnews.com/…/2016/08/31/mylan-teva-generic-e…/

 

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Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, & this in turn, changes us: 3.5 weeks of lessons in PhD-kingdom

It’s only been basically 3.5 weeks of being an enrolled PhD student. And what is it teaching me?

Well, I’m being schooled,  once again.

I keep being met with questions of what I’ve done – and I try to justify my lack of products with: “I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks?”… but people want something more concrete, I guess.

At first people  told me I should be reading, and reading lots! Getting together my bibliography. That’s what I should be doing for the first weeks they said. So my first week, I diligently sat in the library and looked up interesting books and downloaded paper after paper from the library gateway on creative methodologies and healthcarec(& spent a hefty time on twitter). Then the second week rolled around,  really quickly I might just add, & other people started saying that I really should focus on the making art bit because, you know, it is a practice led PhD after all and I don’t want to get to christmas and have nothing to show for it. Too right. So I started making some really terrible pieces of parts of work/thinking process (you know, it always starts off that way, so not too worried at this stage). Then week 3 was met with that I *really* should be focusing pretty much on the REF1. which has to be submitted in literally 6 weeks now. Scary AF.

So I’ve sat and stared at my REF1 form on word for about a week now, feeling the pure weight of re-framing, of patching up the holes of my research proposal, maybe even changing it slightly, of finding out an extensive and integral and good literature list.  Of finding artists to reference and draw from, of figuring out where I sit – art? design? healthcare? sociology? anthropology? (it’s obviously all of those things, but hot damn) —  trying to get my head around my potential methodologies and the pitfalls that they entail, and figuring out how long everything *should* take me to create a plan of sorts, and lets not even talk about my issues of ethics – and my potential plans in place whilst I endure a long ethics procedure — all of this needs to fit into 1000 words. No joke. And I have insane imposter syndrome that it’s not even funny.

My head of studies told me I needed to take a few weeks to just play, to knock down these boundaries I’ve learnt/built up during the past few years. To reflect upon all of the things I’ve experienced, and frame them. To see the tensions that lie within the frameworks of healthcare methodologies and artistic/creative methodologies – how these paradigms work. How they oppress and close discussion or the opposite or even offer more opportunity.  I wrote quite a few reflections, maybe I’ll share some on here in due time.

I applied with a proposal for my first symposium talk in London(combining art and healthcare together – more info soon) and got it, showed folks how to use drawing as a research and reflective tool at the IPE conference at SHU, and I’ve got the radiotherapy annual conference in Jan to present my other design research from earlier this year. All of which I’ve started to pull together over the past 3 weeks too.

I’ve drank a lot of tea, I’ve sat and stared at the walls in my studio. I’ve moved into my city center apartment/flat.

But mostly what all of this has taught me is that when the ground shifts, the next chapter begins. Here’s what I’ve been thinking and learning and trying to tell people when they’re super confused about why I’m using artistic practice-led work to create healthcare change.

Making things can expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human. Finding the vehicles for exploring the edges of your experiences can be really, really scary but it’s a great way of transforming thinking into practice. Change is inevitable, adaptation is optional.

Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, and in turn, changes us.

‘Making’ is a process. In comes from ‘doing’. Doing something. ‘Making’ can bring you face to face with your own agency. ‘Making’ has some of the qualities of an echo. It can travel in space and time and come back to you in the form of a feedback loop.   It helps to make something that you don’t necessarily understand. And even if you think you understand what you are making, the act of making it will change your understanding of it and you will feel yourself get bigger.

I have been exploring my own tracings, teachings, drawings, wanderings and wonderings, feelings, thinkings, questionings and assumptions ever since to better see what can happen when something opens and something else falls… out. And like all ‘critical making,’ it attempts to create a context to make tangible some of the possibilities that can drive passion and engage spirit by striving to go beyond the things we know and towards our own reckoning.

‘Critical making’ can remind us that even when we act alone—as an artist, as a designer, as a healthcare professional, or as a hermit—in isolation, we are part of a larger community.

Seeing is a reflexive process, and like an echo it can find its way back to you. Of course, it all depends upon listening. Everything depends on listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing can tell you which way to go. Listening can tell you who you are.

I’m having to re-learn to be diligent, and teaching myself to be better with my time, and my work. I’m practicing at staying awake and  trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

I said that i was going to take every single opportunity I get as a PhD student. And I’ve attended nearly 75% of everything open to me, talk wise within my free time.

I plan on paying attention to everything. And remembering what Linda Sikora said when I feel crazily over-whelmed with all of the above.

She says that, “It’s more important to keep paying attention and to follow your attention wherever it goes, than it is to think about meaning and content, because meaning and content come from paying attention to the world.”

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We won the award, friends!

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.

Everything changed.

 

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.
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A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world.

A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world.

I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. Every so often when campers know I’ve been pretty poorly over the past few years, they ask me how everything is. I reply with that it’s the most “normal” I’ve felt in 3-4 years.
But it got me thinking: on Returning to Normalcy … What Does that Even Mean?
The last time i worked at Sandy Island, properly, My life was in a state of mental whiplash and I barely even realized it. In barely a few years I’ve gone from being in a death spiral to staying up super late drinking wine with friends, climbing icelandic waterfalls, running for late buses. I went from planning out my funeral to doing radiation oncology and beginning to start a PhD. I’ve gone from thinking I’d never step foot at Sandy Island again, to working my longest summer contract here.
But it’s taken me to get to this summer to look back to see just how far I have come, compared to even just last year. Even in January this year. Even April.
Before going further I have to share how profoundly grateful I am to everyone. I can’t even write these words without gushing tears.
So the thought of a return to normalcy is like a warm embrace: to feel like the last few years were a mere aberration that has been rectified. I can’t explain the joy I got when my brain could feel bored and my body wanted to live again. I have about 4–6 hours a day that feel like they did before. The thought of getting to blend my social passions with community and art and social change immediately sets me to problem solving and creating again. Or the thought of unlocking a new meaningful lifestyle that I can plan for has me losing sleep piecing it together while I should be sleeping. I tweeted the other day that I’m already overwhelmed by the projects I’d like to work on now. It made me so happy to tweet it, to feel like I could be back to normal.
But how can I expect life to be normal? I’m still on a small doses of medications to help with everything from pain, to swelling, to hormone balances, to immune function stuff. As much as a return to normalcy seems the obvious goal, I’m definitely not normal now – so much pain & fatigue, still, and it just hit me I have no idea what was so great about normalcy before.
Being in the USA, seeing friends, being at Sandy Island with friends (staff and campers) has been incredible because these friends are all hard chargers, both professionally and personally. They’re exciting to be around because they are making the most of all parts of their lives and doing so thoughtfully. One of them asked what the projects were I was referencing in my above tweet, and in full imposter syndrome mode I stumbled at trying to explain what I was going to professionally do.
I constantly share that my biggest life insight is that while you have the time, optimize on the meaning you find in life.

In some rush towards normalcy and wanting to make the most of said normalcy, I find myself leaping to my old life – a life where I didn’t see my family, I made excuses not to see friends so I could just work or do less meaningful things. I told myself that I was going to do loads of things at Sandy this year, and I didn’t – as much as I wanted to. I should have spent more nights with Julz and Katy. I should have visited Anya more. I should have drank with Chris more. So many shoulda-woulda-coulda’s. Instead, I spent a lot of time trying to catch up with online stuff (such slow, at times non-existent, wifi). I spent quite a bit of time in bed – fatigue. I spent time that I have no idea where I spent the time?!
So there, Sandy Island: I‘ve been racing to get back to normalcy, racing to shed my death shroud, and I’m on the verge of disrespecting what I’ve been living through just to feel “normal.”
What is so great about normal?. Many of the years of trying to work as a freelance artist were financially crippling. The past years working freelance and undertaking clinical placement whilst feeling ill were exhausting.
Am I sick or am I better? Is a return to normalcy my goal or my loss? How can I maintain this profound sense of gratefulness for life, if I queue up in the same old lines?
Is my death shroud an exoskeleton I can to pull myself out of, instead of dragging it along?
This summer has given me the time to reflect upon this, and think out what’s next, and Sandy Island people are helping me figure this new chapter out, and reminding me just how lucky I am. I’ve never felt so loved in my life; and I am so grateful to be.
Special friends have showed me just how normal love looks. It’s not always a mad-dash to the airport, it can just be a heartfelt hug for you feeling better. It can be an incredible gift like a personalised book full of love and wisdom to help guide you when you’re not super sure what’s next. It could be a cool turtle dove as a reference to your most favourite movie ever (friends for ever — home alone 2!).
The gratitude i feel for all of this is completely over-whelming.
A pilgrim is said to carry all their back-path with them as they move forward. It is the back-path that brought us to where we are now. Without it, we cannot enter the path that lays in front of us.

So i’ve been asking myself: Can I make a future of the unknown and still be myself? Can I ever return to normal? And why do I want to?
Thanks for reading this far if you have.

Much love always, your friend – smizz x

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Between two spaces.

For a long time Samuel Beckett’s 7 words: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” has captured the last few years for me. Re-visiting the old habits of my past life has got me re-thinking everything again.

I’m writing on the MegaBus, my transport method of choice for writing. Long delays, bumpy roads, all on a few dollars – seems to represent my life well. And what else is there to do on a MegaBus other than to over think about all that is and all that was and could have been?

I’ve spent the most incredible few days in NYC catching up with friends and being half wanderer and half tourist. Half ticking ‘living-list’ items off, half just literally watching the sun move across the sky – relaxing after an incredibly hard year. But all of this has given me time to reconsider my position. 

I’m now well stuck in between two spaces –  in between sick and fully healthy, in between degrees, in between art & healthcare, in between transit from one place to another. And when I fell sick, I couldn’t get out of bed, I coughed up blood, I was in severe pain, constant heavy nosebleeds, drenching night sweats, loss of sight, black-outs. It was pretty rough. 

And naturally because of this health issue, everything changed. Everything. My art career changed, my future plans had to be re-adjusted, I wasn’t sure if I was the person I wanted to be if everything ended right there. And for the past few years I’ve spent the years re-negoitating with my body, with my own identity, with my left-over abilities from being damaged on where to go and how to use this experience.

The thing is, I’ve used what’s happened to me as fuel for both incredibly good changes in my life, but also i’ve used it as an excuse as to why I haven’t done other things. I mean, I literally couldn’t get up – so I don’t think I should be too hard on myself. But the thing is, whilst I’m still not 100% and I live with a fear in the back of my mind that it all could easily come back as easily as it appeared — I  no longer can hide behind this excuse of having not done a certain amount of things (art & societally wise). And this doubting voice has started to get louder the closer i’ve got to the end of my healthcare course.  

A bit like when an athlete gets injured, they become less valuable. They might even have to retire early – condemned to areas in which their talents do not lie. 

What happens if whilst i’ve taken a bit of hiatus – what it really shows is that I’m actually not a very good artist? I feel so behind my peers in so many different ways now. I’m getting old.   What happens if I’ve de-skilled myself? So many what-ifs, so many worries?  And what does all  of this mean? 

I think I’m starting to feel the importance of my next body of artwork and the vulnerability of that. That and the vulnerability of being stuck in between two spaces and places and trying to coherently string  this broken fragmented life and experiences together. 

It’s been a good few years since I’ve had the luxury to doubt my work. After all, doubting the future is a luxury only lucky people get to do. And it feels like progress to some degree getting to this place. 

On the bus, I spoke to Katie about these worries. She seemed unfathomed by it and compared it to all development.  Bringing direct inspiration from Britney Spears career – how she has her ups and downs. one album is shit, the other is great. Using all the experiences together to move things forward.

She concluded that, “you’re in the present moment, so you live in it. you do what you need to do in that moment.”

I guess I’ll never know if I had never fell poorly, whether or not I’d be a better, more established artist (or a more established practice/body of work). I can only take off my rose-tinted glasses of the past and Push against these two spaces between me. But I do feel in my bones – that i’ve made some important things for others over the past 2 years, even if the art world canon will never recogonize it. 

However, i’m hoping to spend the next 2 + months finding my artist voice again. Re-building the existing foundation to strengthen my critical art world voice. I’m not sure at all what will come next – but I know what my works NOT going to be – and I know, for sure, that I’m going to use all of my time, and use it all wisely.  

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

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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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Launching A Radiotherapy Story

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About a year ago, I saw a really cool website from Canada about the Faces of Healthcare.

And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have something like this for radiotherapy, and the surrounding services (which is essentially pretty much EVERYTHING in the NHS). Oncology is very much one of the most inter-disciplinary areas within healthcare, ever. From dietitians, counsellors, all different types of doctors, dementia care, mental health, social workers, GPs, ambulance drivers, nurses, students, volunteers, etc — it’s endless! Trying to seamlessly work together to provide the best patient care and experience.

It is for this exact reason why I believe we should celebrate our profession and our patients and their carers and loved ones, and for every single person who is involved within the NHS. Because without them, we’d be a bit lost.

The receptionists who make sure patients get to see the people they need to see. The porters who take the patients to Boots and reading every single sandwich ingredients to the patient. To the volunteers who run Bridge Clinic, and provide unlimited biscuits. To the student who helps someone on and off the toilet… it’s literally endless.

So many people don’t know about radiotherapy. So many patients find the process quite anxiety enhancing due to the lack of personable, friendly, understandable and in-date information online coming up to their treatment.

And as I’ve gone through my training I’ve seen some truly compassionate stuff and heard some amazing stories – of all types. The stories from patients that have stuck with staff, the stories that made staff go into the profession and stay when things have been or become tough.

Patients have been some of my best teachers throughout my training, but some of those lessons have been hard.

And I’d love to share these stories with you. Because everyone’s story deserves to be heard. And i hope through reconstructing these narratives together, we can empower our experiences.

A Radiotherapy Story is photo-documentary on kindness and trauma, on team-working, on suffering and on truly living. On being part of something bigger than yourself.

We want to share with you the stories of these people, of the NHS, to celebrate the pinnacle of humanity and kindness. Of life and death.  I hope you’ll enjoy what we’ve made.

http://www.radiotherapystory.com will be launched in 2 weeks time.

And if you’ve got a story in healthcare that you’d love to share, let us know! Contact: smizz at smizz@sarahsmizz.com or @smizz on twitter.

The project is run by me and Harri Slater.

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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.