by Robaire Beckwith
Knowing what growing up with Tourette Syndrome was like, and remembering the difficulties with understanding the problems experienced as a child and what caused them, led me to finding ways I could help children with TS and other ‘special’ needs caused by neuro-developmental disorders. There was almost no useful advice or support available and I don’t believe things have moved on much now that I am an adult.
I wanted to find a way I could make a difference and be able to improve awareness, influence professional attitudes, improve diagnosis and subsequent provision and treatment. I determined that the best way to do this was to become a doctor myself and specialise in developmental paediatrics or neurology. I could not only become directly involved in the diagnosis and treatment of TS but also become involved in clinical research. Having TS myself would, I hoped, give me a unique insight and ensure I had some idea of the issues that children with TS and their parents face. I hoped my own ‘disability’ would allow me to connect better with and relate to others who are similarly affected.
After gaining my first degree in biological sciences, I taught for several years in a ‘special school’ as a teaching assistant but eventually found this frustrating, as, although I was helping with educational aspects, I became very aware of the profound lack of understanding about Tourette Syndrome among both health and educational professionals. The misconceptions of the medical profession and very poor advice given to parents and their children was something I found truly astounding and worrying.
I was also aware that I had little opportunity to progress and qualify as a teacher. I had applied for post-graduate teacher training during my time as a special-needs teaching assistant but, as I expected, I was not even given an interview.
I did eventually get a place at medical school, but encountered much unexpected discrimination, most of which took place at the very end of four years of extremely hard work, including facing the challenges that studying medicine with a disorder like Tourette Syndrome presented. The manner in which I was treated by staff of the medical school came as a big shock and I was ill-equipped to deal with it. I was subjected to what seemed like a concerted effort by my medical school to deter me from completing my training, using every means possible to question my abilities, undermine my self-belief and even suggest I would pose a risk to my patients should I practice.
My experiences with medical training and the prejudice I encountered make up a complex story that I hope to tell fully one day, and it will help explain how, despite all signs being to the contrary throughout my training, I ultimately had to resign myself to hanging up my stethoscope for the last time and abandon a large collection of costly medical textbooks over which I had pored for unimaginable hours, along with the hopes that had driven me forward. I at least have the satisfaction that I was able complete all my clinical training rotations successfully and received good commendations, assessments and much encouragement from the consultants under whom I trained in several hospitals. I had put in long hours on the wards, in theatre and clinics. I found clinical practice immensely rewarding, and I was actually good at it. I knew I had to work a lot harder than most students to get through all the reading and written assessments. Giving presentations was my biggest fear, as I would have to be the focus of attention in a room full of smart and critical students and doctors, but I managed to overcome this and achieved a passable performance, although the stress was often overwhelming. For a while I really thought I would achieve my goal and be able to transcend the difficulties of my condition.
I often feel very disappointed and immeasurably sad that I could not graduate alongside my other classmates and share in the mutual sense of achievement. This is often the true reality of Tourette Syndrome: you know you can do something, but always have to struggle with others not taking you seriously. Sometimes you just resign yourself to believing that however hard you try to prove yourself, it will never be enough. You get used to seeing your friends and classmates progressing through life and effortlessly overcoming obstacles that may stop you in your tracks. However, despite this, I still try to keep some belief in myself and never feel willing to give up. A problem with this disorder is that individuals are often painfully aware of how others see them, but feel they can do little to change those perceptions.
I had spent four years with my fellow medical students going from our first clinical experiences to greater challenges, with excitement and hope for the future. We went through incredible experiences together and gradually developed confidence in ourselves, our clinical abilities and the potential value of our skills to others. I do, however, feel a great sense of satisfaction in that my clinical partner, throughout my years of hospital training, managed to graduate successfully despite having many setbacks and struggling on many occasions. In the end, she finally made it and I’m sure she will be a competent and dedicated doctor.