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My off-piste route into medicine & mental health (Part 2)

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Dr Anna White


This is a blog (part 2 of 2) on my off-piste route into medicine and mental health. Here, I describe my personal story of how I got to where I am now.

I started my journey into medical school and foundation training in a slightly unorthodox way. I want to be able to start this post with an inspiring tale of ambition, drive and how I always knew it was what I wanted to do, love ‘science & helping people,’ ad nauseam, etc. etc. But in all honesty, it was mostly driven by being very competitive, vaguely competent at science (apart from physics) and the more I researched it, the more I wanted to do it.

I did my work experience at an army gym (I still stand by personal trainer as being my fallback option) and ended up leaving school with 6 GCSEs. Not your classic start to a glowing personal statement and ticking all the right UCAS boxes.

I was unwell through most of the slightly more important, exam-based school years (excellent timing, well done me) and missed the majority of Year 11, coming back to school at some point toward the end of March and sitting GCSEs that summer. Not the end of the world, but not ideal. I think I was a permanent black mark on our school’s achievement records (sorry not sorry), and then relapsed quite significantly, spending the majority of the next 2 years in hospital.

So aged 18, when you’re meant to be having the time of your life at freshers (or so I believed) and most of my school friends have left for university with their 76 A*s at A Level (or so it felt), I was just about transitioning back to living at home, still relatively unwell and generally a little confused about how to get back ‘on track’ with education. Aiming vaguely towards nursing as my end goal, but to be honest I was still struggling to eat a sandwich, so it all seemed a little farfetched and completely unachievable.

As part of discharge planning and general life planning, I enrolled on a Prince’s Trust course - which, hesitant as I was, turned out to be a complete game changer. I had applied to the local college for A Levels starting in September, and this 12-week course ran over the summer, aimed at getting teens/ young ‘adults’ who were unemployed and essentially a little directionless into further education/ employment, gain life skills, CV skills, think about what they wanted in their future and generally make us a little more useful, less sh*t humans. And it worked (mostly).

Which brings us on to college, where the hilarious notion that I could potentially achieve the grades for medical school, and actually go to university and start (albeit a little delayed) on the general life plan I had strayed quite far from.

College was hard. Learning again after such a long break was difficult - I am by no means the smartest cookie in the packet, and it took a lot of study (and patience from my long-suffering Chemistry teacher - sorry David). I started AS with Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology (and, full disclaimer, sat the first module of AS chemistry 4 times in 2 years - never failing, but never improving - perfectionism is not the way forward will come to be a recurrent theme throughout this post). After crying like an absolute toddler on AS results day with my C in AS mechanics (I didn't understand it then, and absolutely never will), and managing to disregard all the A’s and generally not failing anything, my Maths teacher took me aside and told me maybe medicine isn't the right career, it's not meant to be, there are other things etc. etc. And I of course believed him (I mean, at the end of the day he was right, there were other options - it wasn't the end of the world), but then I started getting more determined (dropped maths - finally making a sensible decision) and off we went to focus on getting that damn A in Chemistry. The bane of my life over those 2 years (the number of tears shed over Bunsen burners and benzene rings) ... but it's all character building, and good practice for F1/2 - endless frustrating tasks that you just don’t see the point of.

UCAS application (first time round - hence the long story) was not my forte - I did my 4 medicine options and ended up with my only offer being Biomedical Sciences (biomed) at Cardiff. So the choice was: 1) whether or not to take it, 2) apply again during Freshers and try for medicine, 3) try to complete the degree and apply for Graduate Entry (GEM) later down the line, 4) take a gap year and reapply, or 5) research other career opportunities that a biomed degree would help towards, rather than keep pursuing the medicine dream.

Obviously there is no right or wrong in this situation - the factors that swayed me towards biomed-GEM route were a mixture of wanting to leave home, move out and start being more independent, using the time to explore other career opportunities (because, let's be honest, it's quite niche growing up wanting to do a biomed degree), fees and funding (my first degree was in the £3000 per year bracket, with fees going up the following year meaning tuition fee -wise it would be the same for 5 or 7 years), and in hindsight, not being quite ready yet to study medicine and all that entailed.

Even though I am *ahem* slightly older, I definitely don’t regret the biomed route. Despite having probably (definitely) forgotten most of the finer details of the degree - it was an incredibly useful way of doing things - learning anatomy and physiology in more detail (especially anatomy - we did a whole year of dissection and it was genuinely the best), learning about research & lab based skills (again, not the most useful as a med student/ F1, but definitely useful later down the line), writing essays and research papers etc. Also the benefits of giving you time to matu