Hannah first got in contact with me in 2015, when she was unsure she could achieve her goal of training as a midwife.
She has a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia.
She was just coming up to leaving college and I could tell she had a lot to offer women and families because of what she'd faced in life so far. This is what we worked together to communicate in her personal statement.
Hannah's story reminds me that the wisest students and midwives I've come across have often coped with unholy life circumstances.
They've succeeded because of these, not in spite of them. If you've faced illness, family challenges, being a single parent when that was never what you planned, bereavement, etc. you have your centre and your understand that everyone's struggles are difficult and mostly unseen.
In terms of chronic conditions, you do need to be of 'good health and good character' to train as a midwife. But the disability discrimination act means reasonable adjustments can be made so you can achieve your goal.
The challenges Hannah has overcome to work in her chosen profession are incredible. We want this post to be inspirational for anyone with health problems who is considering becoming a midwife.
And hopefully, this will spread the word about these chronic conditions too, as it was International Awareness Day for Chronic Immunological and Neurological Diseases on May 12th.
'Today is a bad day. I know everyone has bad days, so I am told constantly by all my ‘well’ peers. This is different though. I can’t be touched, so much as even a poke or the pressure from wearing a t-shirt on my skin is enough to cause stabbing pain all over my entire body.
Do I lie down? Do I get up? Lying down causes pain whichever way I position myself; I am not strong enough to sit up. Attempting to get out of bed could take hours. Do I shower or brush my teeth? This is a question I ask myself on a bad day. I know that sounds excessive, but sometimes it really is one or the other. Either way, I’ll be back in bed afterwards.
Do I go out with my friends today and pay for it tomorrow, or not take the risk? Either way, I’ll be in pain and bed-bound during a flare up, so why not go all out and enjoy myself for a few hours? That is if my anxiety allows, obviously. The fear of being in pain when I am out is sometimes enough to stop me trying altogether.
Chronic illness. Misunderstood, ignored and judged. I don’t blame you really. Even the doctors don’t know why I feel so dreadful. I judge myself, sometimes. Am I just making it all up? Should I just try harder? Maybe when I get out of bed I will feel better. Maybe if I go out I’ll just forget about it. Maybe if I just pretend to be cured, it will all go away?
I realise these are stupid things to think. I realise this is real, very real. I feel the pain on a daily basis. I am exhausted constantly, despite sleeping for 12 hours straight and doing nothing all day long. I experience severe anxiety and depression. I can’t think straight half the time. Am I even making sense right now? I can’t eat certain foods or drink alcohol. I can’t go on nights out, or so much as doing the weekly shop. Why can’t anyone else see this too? I said to the doctor, this tramadol isn’t touching the pain. It isn’t even making me drowsy.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Well keep trying. You are too young and too slim for me to give anything stronger.’ But I am in pain. Why does my age and physique determine the treatment I receive?
Thankfully, I have good days too. The good days allow me to pursue a career in midwifery. I was told I could never do this, I believed it too. How could I cope? It is a well-known fact that even without health problems, the midwifery degree is intense.
I couldn’t let the illness win. I embarked on this journey and it has been harder than I could have ever imagined. Academically, I am coping. All exams and assignments passed. Physically, it has been hard. I can only do the drive to university once a week, before the pain is too much (thank you to my lovely car shares who have saved the day on many occasion) and I need adaptations in placement.
I coped well in the community. On my first week on delivery suite, I did consecutively a day and two nights. Why did I think this was a good idea? By the final night, at 5 am, after an emergency caesarean section, I was in tears. It was too much to deal with. Thank you to my lovely mentor who treated me with respect and understanding. Safe to say that I slept for 3 days straight after that.
I was proactive and decided that I would never do more than 1-2 shifts in a row and most definitely limit night shifts. Now, it is bearable. The long shifts are a killer for my entire body. I do sleep for at least 12 hours’ post shift and need days to recover. I do have moments where my hands are too painful to take blood, or that I have to sit down when caring for women in labour.
There are midwives who don’t understand and will tell me to ‘get on with it.’ To that, I say, ‘No. Would you ask someone with a broken leg to stand up all day?’
I am as perfectly capable as anyone else to carry out this role. Yes, sometimes I need to make adjustments, but this does not affect my competence. I have caught babies, carried out examinations and had many skills signed off. I will work hard and I know my limits. I am succeeding against the odds.
So, if you or someone you know suffers from a chronic illness and is hoping to pursue a career in midwifery, what advice would I give?
I would say that it is possible. It is hard, but it is possible. Think about it carefully. You know your own limits. Don’t put your health in danger, but at the same time, don’t deprive yourself of fulfilling your potential.
Adjustments can be made and you are protected by the equalities act. People may ask questions, frown and treat you differently, but this is not a reflection on you. They can’t see how you feel inside unless you tell them. Be open and honest.
If you experience discrimination, report it. If you need a day off, take it. If you need an extension on a deadline, ask for it. If you need painkillers, take them. If you need to sit down, find a chair.
Most importantly, do not be afraid to say NO - I can’t do that today.
You are not here to please people. You are here to protect yourself and others. Sometimes, you just can’t do the things that people ask and that is ok. Nobody can do it all.
We need to raise awareness about chronic illnesses. There are thousands: fibromyalgia (my nemesis), chronic fatigue syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, endometriosis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, to name a few.
We sufferers can function normally. We are not always suffering. Good days do not mean we are cured, bad days do not mean we are useless. These illnesses can be managed. They don’t have to be life limiting. We can reach our goals. We can live a normal life. We just need to understand ourselves and be honest with our struggles.
To those suffering, you are warriors. You are brave. You are strong. Treatments will be discovered and one day, we will not have to explain ourselves. Please reach out – I am here for you.'
Hannah can be found in The Secret Community For Midwives In The Making on Facebook , she's one of our moderators.
The truth is when you look at successful people close up, they've often had an uncertain, almighty struggle to get where they are. Usually, it's the commitment to doing something that's most important to your success, not how easy you find it.
And living the life you choose for yourself, no matter what anyone else may think, is fundamental to making the most of the short time you have on the planet.
And that's how amazing student midwives like Hannah are made, against the odds 🙂
Hannah and I would love to hear what you thought of this post and your own story as an aspiring, student or qualified midwife.
Leave us a comment letting us know:
1) What important insight into chronic conditions did you take from this post?
2) Do you have a chronic illness and despite this, are pursuing midwifery?
3) Which of your life experiences do you think will be most influential on your practice as a midwife?
I hope you're having a wonderful midwifery week, much love, Ellie x