I want to do something more with my life, but I don’t know what that something is 1

My story of being a first-year therapeutic radiography student during COVID, a blog by Neil Dunn at SHU

I distinctly remember writing those words in an email to a friend some 15 years ago. It reflected a growing discontent within myself about my career path. Not that I was stuck in some dead-end job, far from it. I had a degree in chemistry, a decent job working in the labs for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and I ‘m sure my parents were reasonably proud of how I’d turned out. I worked in Quality Control, analysing the medicines as they were made, yet I never saw a patient, never saw the benefit of what we were doing, and ultimately you were always aware that you were working for a business. I had looked at nursing on and off over the years, but never with any real conviction – I had bigger concerns with a wife, kids, mortgage, all the responsibilities that go with being a Grown Up. So that “something more” remained a distant longing somewhere at the back of my brain, till it all changed two years ago. The day before my 46th birthday, the company where I had worked since 1994 announced they were closing the site in two years-time and we were all being made redundant. Naturally, there were a range of emotions amongst the assembled staff, but I was strangely calm – this was the opportunity I had been waiting for, and I knew it was a now or never moment for me.

My journey from there to starting a degree in Radiotherapy could take up an entire blog post in itself, because that day it wasn’t even remotely close to being on my radar. I initially focussed on looking at a career in nursing, but as I researched it, the depth and breadth of nursing freaked me out – I had no idea what kind of nurse I wanted to be! Of course, I now know this doesn’t matter as a student, but it set me to thinking “if not nursing, then what?” I wanted something that used my scientific education and technical skills, but was still close to the patient, so I literally went through the A-Z of careers on the NHS website till I got to Diagnostic Radiography – it was perfect! At the bottom of the entry it said “there are also Therapeutic Radiographers who use radiation to treat cancer.” I had a rough idea of what radiotherapy was, my dad had been given it when first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2001. “Well, they’ll be like doctors and stuff” I thought, and dismissed it from my mind. It was the first in a relentless drip feed of events over the next four months that would lead to me choosing Radiotherapy as my future career, but there are two key moments that stand out. First, an incredibly courageous sitewide email from a co-worker talking about her breast cancer treatment (including radiotherapy) which came through one lunchtime at the exact moment I was, merely out of curiosity, researching the requirements for being a Therapeutic Radiographer. It was a real “is Someone trying to tell me something?” moment, but it also challenged me that someone I knew was going through this right now. The other was when I was filling in my work experience form to spend a day at Castle Hill Hospital in Hull. The form was 9 pages long, and the last page was the warning page of what I might expect to see – naked patients, terminally ill people, tracheotomies, fungating lesions….I didn’t know what the last one was, but it didn’t sound very good. It was all serious stuff, but it affected me deep down inside. Essentially, my conscience challenged me – these were seriously ill people and I had the education and skills to be able to do something about it….so why wasn’t I?

Fast forward two years and here I am approaching the end of my first semester as a Radiotherapy and Oncology student at Sheffield Hallam University. Thanks to COVID it’s not been what I was expecting when I first applied as my offer of a place came through in December 2019, a few months before the virus first hit our shores. Of course, by the time the course started we all knew it wasn’t going to be a normal academic year. I remember a webinar with the course leaders in the summer where they told us they had prepared “plans A through G”. By September it was clear that the vast majority of the teaching was going to be online, in fact as it happens we have had only one day of face to face teaching on campus for our course, for mandatory training before we go on our first placements in the new year.

In terms of the pandemic itself, my own experience of it has been a rather remote, almost unreal one. I live in a village in northern Lincolnshire, an area which during the first wave had one of the lowest rates in the country – I didn’t personally know a single person who caught it at that time. The country was in lockdown, hundreds were dying every day, but it was something that happened to other people, something that only happened on TV. But in a way, it prepared me for what life would be like as a student under COVID. Working in pharmaceutical manufacturing, I was classed as a key worker, but to minimise the number of people on site I was only in one day a week, the rest of the time working from home.

When people ask me how the course is going, I will often joke “I sit in my garage all day staring at a computer screen.” But it belies a truth about working/studying from home during the pandemic; we are social creatures, and all this remoteness and lack of personal interaction is not good for us. It’s taught me a lot about myself – I wouldn’t consider myself a social butterfly, and I am very happy in my own company as shown by my hobbies and ways I spend my free time. But I missed going into work every day, seeing my friends, having a laugh and a joke and a moan, and just working together, more so as I knew I was leaving soon and my time was running out after so many years. With university all being online there is none of this social interaction, especially for us first years as unlike second and third years who will already have established social groups, we have had no previous opportunities to form friendship groups. Some of us live in our own homes, some have stayed at home with parents, some have moved to Sheffield and moved into student accommodation, but we all face the same issue to a greater or lesser extent – little to no face to face contact with our peers. We see some of our fellow student faces online, a few students in halls have managed to meet up between lockdowns, and we interact through our WhatsApp groups but it’s not the same as spending time together and getting to know one another.

This isolation has also brought home another truth, one we have discussed in our interprofessional modules with other disciplines, the issue of loneliness. For many students, myself included, 2020 has opened our eyes to the issue of loneliness. There are who knows how many people out there, who for whatever reason – age, illness, bereavement – are socially isolated. What most of us are suffering through this year is a constant in their lives, and that is a sobering thought that should give us all pause for thought when this is eventually over.

Online lectures can be tough on both lecturer and student. For the lecturer, there is the issue of engagement with the students, especially as some do not like to have their cameras on. I’m old enough and ugly enough to not care about it, but some people just don’t like being on camera. They would be happy to interact and get involved in a classroom but not on camera. It’s still possible to ask questions in a live online lecture, and the chat can be a useful function for storing questions to be answered at the end of the lecture, however obviously this is not possible in a pre-recorded online lecture. To be fair to the university, they have put a lot of effort into the online lectures, and the live lectures from inside the departments virtual reality suite (VERT) have been a one man multi-tasking triumph – operating several cameras, screens, zoom, VERT itself, monitoring the chat, interacting with the students, and still managing to deliver a lecture! Then there’s the distractions of studying at home – kids, the postman……cats! My fellow students are very familiar with the rear anatomy of my cats by now!

There are some benefits though, for myself online study means no commute to Sheffield and back every day, which saves me 3 hours a day, lots of petrol money and means I’m a lot less tired. On the flip side is the students stuck in halls. Many of them have spent the semester in limbo, especially those who don’t live that far away, unsure whether to go home or try and stick it out in Sheffield. Moving away from home for the first time is a big deal, the first steps into adulthood, and homesickness and loneliness are an issue for these students at the best of times. Throw in all the lockdown restrictions and you can imagine how hard it must be for them.

WhatsApp has been an absolute lifesaver though. A constant source of encouragement, information and laughs. Ask a question about anatomy, or the assignment due date, or the location of a particular lecture and another student will post an answer with minutes. Post a picture of your Christmas decorations that you put up in the middle of November, and half a dozen other students will post pictures of theirs that they also put up ridiculously early!

One thing I learned whilst I was working from home during the first lockdown was the importance of getting out of the house and getting some fresh air and exercise. It helped that the weather was so nice then, but not just for physical well-being, but also mental well-being I found it vital that I made the effort to get out every day and since starting the degree I have continued that. I’ve always been an early riser, so I still get up at 6 and treat student life like it was a” working day” – I know not everyone is a morning person, but we’re going to spend half our course on placement doing work hours so we may as well get used to it. If my wife is off that day we will walk our youngest daughter to school then go for an hours walk round the village (lectures permitting!) If she’s at work I’ll take myself off for an early morning bike round in the Lincolnshire countryside for an hour or so. The homely temptations of crisps and biscuits means that I’m not losing weight, but at least I’m not putting on as much as I would if I wasn’t doing any exercise! But that exercise is crucial for me in minimising Cabin Fever.

This week I was in the first small group of RONC students to go onto campus for a day for our pre-placement mandatory training. It felt amazing to finally meet some of my fellow students, and even better to be doing some actual live, hands-on training! The year so far has been totally academic – obviously there is a lot we need to learn – but the role of the Therapeutic Radiographer is an active, physical one. This was a bonus when I chose this course, I’ve spent the last 5 years doing jobs that involved a lot of sitting down and I wanted to be on my feet again and getting involved.

Hopefully in mid-January we will all be going on our first placements. I will be returning to Castle Hill Hospital in Hull exactly two years since I had my work experience day there, and I’m excited about the opportunity, not just to get out of the house and be active and meet people but to get my first real taste of my chosen career. I mentioned earlier about Northern Lincolnshire having one of the lowest COVID rates in the country earlier in the year. Sadly, this is no longer the case, as along with Hull it is now one of the highest, however I don’t find myself worrying about going into a hospital environment. I spent 20 years handling hazardous chemicals in the lab and that taught me a lot about safe working – don’t be scared of the hazard, but treat it with the respect it deserves, wear the right PPE, and follow the rules for your safety and the safety of those around you. I feel the same about COVID – the NHS has had almost a year to learn about this and thankfully we’re not in the situation staff & students were back in March when it was all new and frightening and the rules were seemingly changing every day. The procedures are now well established and they’re not going to be putting first year students in a high-risk environment.

So that’s my story of being a first-year student during COVID. To be honest by biggest fear going into the course wasn’t about the pandemic affecting my studies, but being a mature student. Thankfully not only am I not the only “oldie” on the course, I’m not even the oldest one! I’ll be 50 when I graduate and God willing, I’ve still got a good 10 or 15 years left in me yet to go out and do my bit to make a difference in cancer patients lives.

Not helping!

Still not helping!

This is fine.

One thought on “I want to do something more with my life, but I don’t know what that something is

  • Melanie Clarkson

    Well done Neil. You remind me so much of a friend and qualified Therapeutic Radiographer in Middlesbrough. His journey is pretty much the same as yours, he is now a band 7. I am going to forward your story to him. Looking forward to working with you the programme.

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