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19/01/2017 10:56:15

My experience of Core Training in Psychiatry as a disabled medical doctor

When you have been what you could describe as a successful highly regarded and rewarded medical doctor, the immediate realisation that there is something substantially wrong going on with your brain, puts you in a difficult place. If you are a good doctor, you immediately realise the severity of your problem, but at the same time, you know that you are not supposed to diagnose yourself.

That was my experience when one day I went to work and realised that numbers did not make any sense to me. Numbers had been, apart from medicine, my passion in life. They had always made sense to me even after they were processed with difficult complex models. I was able to perceive inconsistencies or anomalies rapidly even in national datasets. Suddenly, I could not think how one plus one made two, or how much the change needed to be in the coffee shop. Apart from that, I started feeling extremely tired and was unable to sleep.

After normal blood testing, I was told that I was likely to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (diagnosis by exclusion). I was referred to the specialist service and this was apparently confirmed. Particularly because after one year, one day, I could not make sense of words when I was reading, watching TV or talking to people. By the time my brain was processing the first sentence in seconds to pass to the next one, I had already forgotten what the first sentence was about. I could not name objects and everything became “a thingy”. I spoke with my very supportive family about the possibility of an early Alzheimer’s.

At that time, I was working in Public Health and my trainers could not understand and definitely were not very sympathetic. They were different harder times for disabled people. The need for reasonable adjustments was considered to be an allowance that should not be available for doctors, as if the world and the profession was dependant on our all perfect brains and functions.

My original problems improved progressively, but they never went back to baseline. I am able to work with numbers again, but I do not have the extra sensitivity that I had in the past. I have been told that I suffer of a newly developed dyslexia that affects in particular my phonological awareness. This has direct influence in my pronunciation of words in any language.

It was six years after I experienced the first symptoms that I was diagnosed with a Meningioma. The size of the Meningioma never explained the symptoms. However, I have other neurological problems and perhaps one of them, or the effect of the combination has caused the “unexplainable symptoms”. A neurologist once told me that I had been really unlucky because I have several neurological conditions that would rarely happen in the same person.

In 2014, I was told that I required surgery of the still growing Meningioma because I started experiencing olfactory hallucinations. The very successful surgical procedure took place at Queen Square in January 2015. Thanks to my very skilful neurosurgeon and his team, there were no serious complications and two months after the procedure I was ready to go back to work. After the surgery, some of the unexplainable neurological symptoms started fading. The Neurosurgeon has recently explained to me that it is likely that the tumour had been causing some level of inflammation in the brain and in consequence the symptoms that have started to disappear.

I still have other neurological problems, and after the surgery I started feeling even more tired than before. I am still unable to drive long distances or time. My swallowing difficulties have worsened and my speech changed as well. Sometimes I am able to see a word clearly in my mind and the pronunciation comes from my mouth with a different composition of sounds. I already was suffering of lack of phonological awareness, but the changes to my voice box in structure (I had a endonasal transcribriform procedure), the constant irritation caused by a fluid of unknown origin, and the constant clearing of my throat, has made my speech occasionally unintelligible. This particularly happens when I am stressed or rushing or I am overthinking what I have to say. The speech and language therapy has assisted me not only with strategies and exercises to make my speech more intelligible, but also to improve my self-esteem and confidence. I require extra preparation for everything that I need to do and say, particularly on more formal sessions or exams. In particular, I need reasonable adjustments and lots of support and understanding to be able to perform at the same level than my peers.

Because my condition is not immediately obvious to others, people can be sceptical when I need adjustments. They prefer to believe that my speech problems are caused by my Mexican origin and pronunciation.

Moving between placements every six months during my Core Training meant often contact with Occupational Health. Having to set up reasonable adjustments so frequently does cause me a fair amount of stress, and obviously results in discussing confidential details with lots of different people.


Moving from Public Health into Psychiatry

When I was told that I had a benign brain tumour, the first thing that came to my mind was relief, not only because perhaps now I had the explanation for my symptoms, but also because it was not malign. My grandmother died because of an Astrocytoma.

It is in moments like this that you need to stop and reflect about your personal and professional life. I could not see myself practicing a Specialty in which the contact with patients (because of the way in which it is organised in this country) was rare. At the end of the day, the patients were the reason for me to become a medical doctor. After a career break, I made a decision to retrain in a speciality that was more suitable. I was very fortunate to secure a locum appointment for service post in Psychiatry and later a Core Training post.


My working place at Leicestershire Partnership Trust (LPT)

Working as a doctor with a disability, and also with extensive experience of being a patient has hopefully made me a better, more compassionate doctor.

It was a God’s blessing to have found a job at Leicestershire Partnership Trust (LPT) after my career break. I am sure that this Trust is not unique in terms of its compliance with the responsibilities associated with the Equality Act. However, having worked as part of the Equalities team gives me the insight to say that this Trust has been always in the leading position, investing time and effort in equality aspects. LPT always moves many extra miles if this is going to benefit its patients or members of staff.

The adjustments provided were numerous and they changed over time depending on my additional needs.

While not everything has always gone perfect when discussing reasonable adjustments, this is not because of the lack of policies, information or training. It has been because some human beings, including doctors may still believe that the medical profession has been made for the perfect unspoiled people, and disabled people and reasonable adjustments do not have a place in the same page as medical training.

LPT heard my concerns when things did not go well, and has acted upon my complaints when members of staff considered themselves above the national or international mandates.

My experience at LPT was most of the time more than positive. My trainers and supervisors have seen above my disability. They have appreciated the ability behind the disability, and have supported me to work within the limit and sometimes, when needed, above my multiple abilities, knowledge and skills. Medical staffing was brilliant when sorting out problems derived of the complexity of my needs.

I am grateful and in debt for all the support received.


The Royal College of Psychiatrists

I have passed my entire membership examinations; one before the brain surgery and three after the surgery.

I do not know what happen with other Medical Royal Colleges or Faculties at this moment in time, but I am able to say that the Royal College of Psychiatrists takes its Equality responsibilities very seriously indeed.

From the moment that I first contacted the person in charge of the operational aspects of the examinations, I realised how different this was compared with my previous experiences. The operations officer was always compassionate, objective, helpful and effective. At no time I felt that I was a burden to her and the logistics or the College. In the opposite direction, I always felt heard, appreciated and helped by the Examinations Unit and all the Chief Examiners in post during this period.

Most of the members of staff do not know and did not have to know the particularities of my disability, but they were always open to the unknown and also keen to assist. I prepared really hard for my exams; at least as hard as many other trainees or candidates that have passed the exams. However, I am 100% sure that if it has not been because of the reasonable adjustments that the Royal College put in place, I would not have been able to pass the exams, due to the long lasting substantial disadvantage I am placed due to my disabilities.

Each single candidate has specific needs, so it is not adequate to list all the different adjustments that the college put in place, but I can say that they rebalanced the disadvantage caused by my disability.

I am not sure how many other members of the college have undergone brain surgery while in training, but my experience tells me that it is not an easy enterprise to deal with within a short period of time without feeling that you are held by a large support network which includes your family, friends and relatives in relation to your personal life. In your professional life, you need an employer as sensitive to equality issues as LPT and a Royal College that will walk the difficult track next to you, putting in place the safeguards that will help you to move forward and reach your dreams regardless of the limitations imposed by a disability.

The main positive outcome in my case is that I managed to stay working within a clinical medical role, and have managed to complete my Core Training and Exams for a specialty that is more suitable for me in the long term. I will be applying for the next position soon and hopefully able to finish my training and become a consultant. If I ever become a consultant, this will be thanks to the coordinated effort I have been blessed with (LPT, Royal College, and any future employer) when I made the decision to start my career in Psychiatry.

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  Dr Sandra Reyes-Beaman

Dr Sandra Reyes-Beaman is a Specialty Doctor in Old Age Psychiatry based at Kingsway Hospital, Derby. Before her Core Training in Psychiatry she was an Age Equality Manager at LPT. She has 30 years’ experience in Public Health and Medical Research, multiple publications in peer reviewed journals and two published books. She was awarded a PhD from London University and an MSc in Epidemiology from the National University in Mexico.

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