Being a doctor is a tough job. Having a disability can make it even harder. Yet while doctors with disabilities make up almost 4% of the UK medical register – more than 13,000 doctors – visible role models are few and far between.
Here, wheelchair user Grace Spence Green talks about her experience of preparing for and beginning her career as a doctor.
After seven long years of medical schools and training, I’m about to start work as a junior doctor. And I’m anxious.
I sustained a spinal cord injury in 2018 as a fourth-year medical student, which has meant I am now a full-time wheelchair user. In 2019 I went back to my studies and, believe me, it was a tough transition.
How I got my head round it
After my injury, it took me a good while to truly believe that I still belonged in this profession.
I had to work hard to build up the self-belief necessary to advocate for my needs and to empower me to speak up when I realised that I wasn’t being treated fairly. I also realised that I didn’t have to answer yet another question of why I am in a wheelchair and how do I manage?
I have also had to become comfortable occupying more physical space, as I take up more now. Owning my space hasn’t just been a physical process, it’s been about growing in confidence and constantly reminding myself that I have value and am an asset to the team.
I am starting work at the same hospital where I spent my last two years as a student. It’s comforting to be somewhere familiar; I know these halls and wards well, having rolled through them many times.
As someone on wheels, I’ve become acutely aware of floor gradients; the curves of the corridors; the ramps that require more of a run up, the slopes where I can let go of my push rims to check my phone, fix my stethoscope, or to put my protective glasses, that slip down so often, back on my head.
I know which doors I need to prop myself up in order to reach the handle, where I can and can’t get to necessary equipment. I can plan my route around the hospital to minimise the number of pushes.
I know the easiest place to get scrubs, the biggest locker room to get changed in, where the good accessible toilets are, and the ones to avoid where they’ve simply attached a bar and called it a day.
I know the cashier at M&S well, laugh at the same ‘Amazing Grace’ joke he makes every time we see each other, and we talk about our favourite TV shows.
The staff and volunteers are aware of me, they nod to me in the corridor, said ‘good morning doctor’, long before I had that title. I have a community here, a network of people looking out for me.
But what if?
With all this in mind, I am still apprehensive. What if patients don’t have faith in me? What if my wheelchair gets in the way? What if my colleagues think I’m less than? How do I manage my health while working such long hours?
I feel I have a lot of pressure on me and at the same time very little. I must prove myself more to show that I belong, but the bar is set so low for disabled people I’m worried that I will always be the one that’s expected to need help, and I won’t be asked to do things that my colleagues will be.
It’s three weeks on and I have started my shadowing period, following the junior doctors on their jobs before we replace them in a week. The first day was tough. There was a mix up in my rota and I was told to meet in an office that had stairs and no lift. It’s hard to feel like you belong somewhere when you can’t even get access to the room.
The second day was one of the hottest of the year, and my back was already starting to throb, my body not accustomed to sitting in my wheelchair for this long a stretch. The old fears were creeping in; worrying about when I was going to find ten minutes to go to the bathroom, worrying about whether I can fit into the office or whether the patients will take me seriously when I go in to talk to them.
I felt hopeless, that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the profession I’d worked so hard to join.
I wheel out of the room where I was working to get some air, going past a new patient by the door who’s sitting in her own wheelchair. She beams at me and says, ‘I’ve never seen a doctor in a wheelchair’. We are eye level and I smile back. I tell her we’re a rare breed, and that hopefully one day there’ll be more of us. I leave feeling emboldened. I think I do have a purpose here.
I go into the doctor’s office and colleague helps me learn how to check results and blood tests for the next morning. A nurse comes round with ice lollies for us all.
I look around at everyone eating their ice lollies, getting on with their jobs, teaching each other, sharing responsibilities, chatting and laughing.
Everything suddenly feels possible again, manageable. I think this is going to be okay.