The Girl with the Hair

I’ve always wanted to work in the medical field. Doing medicine just made sense; the perfect marriage of science and arts, every day being different from the last, and the being a lifetime learner. It was the perfect fit for me. With that decision to move into such a competitive career, I’ve made some observations, and come across some interesting situations along the way.

I had applied to Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Keele for medicine. Manchester had a unique allure with their PBL style, but Nottingham was my favourite. My UCAT score was a below average, as I’d only spent 2 weeks studying for it. I had just come back from a Cadet Camp that summer and grossly underestimated how much time was actually needed to adequately prepare for it. Unfortunately my UCAT score became my Achilles heel, and despite my personal statement being something even Shakespeare would be proud of, I only received one interview.  Luckily, it was from Nottingham.

For any UK university, you have to go through an interview process in order to receive an offer of any kind. I remember feeling quite nervous, not because of the interview itself – I was confident I knew my stuff – but the people that I would meet in there. I had to get to Nottingham from London early in the morning. I remember arriving and my mum and I immediately getting lost; the campus is much bigger than the mixed comprehensive school I’d come from.  Once we found our way to the medical school building, we were greeted by smiling students who took me to a room full of other equally nervous A level students. Initially, I was quite surprised to see only one other black person in the room of about 20, but I felt at much more at ease as he smiled at me as if to say, “We’re in this together”. 

The idea of interviews didn’t scare me but thinking about the people on the other side who would be judging my performance made me nervous. See, you can hide behind a UCAS number and a personal statement, but once you enter an interview room, every aspect of your being is laid bare in front of the interviewers for scrutiny. I had straightened my already relaxed hair specially for the occasion, somehow hoping it might offset whatever misconceptions they might already have of my dark skin. The students did their best to calm us down, talking about how everyone was on our side and wanted us here. Alas, it did nothing to undo the tightening knots in my stomach as I repeatedly pushed my glasses up my sweat ridden nose. 

I had straightened my already relaxed hair specially for the occasion, somehow hoping it might offset whatever misconceptions they might already have of my dark skin.

The actual interview went fine. It was a series of 10-minute stations with different scenarios in each. I was caught off guard when there was an ethics station. The interviewer kept pushing me on the same question I didn’t know the answer to, and I couldn’t tell if he was trying to help, or if he enjoyed seeing me squirm in my seat. Those 10 minutes crawled by as I prayed to God that the ground would swallow me there and then. Once the interview was done, I saw the other black student on my way out and yelled “see you in September!” across the corridor, hoping saying it out loud would cement it as truth. 

I got my offer a week later. I cried – it felt like a massive weight had been taken off me. Only for another one to be put back on once I remembered the final exams that needed to be passed in order to get there. Thankfully, those also went ok too, and I was off to the University of Nottingham to study Medicine for 5 years. I didn’t know what to expect when I started, but I knew it was going to be a lot of work.

In a class of 250 students, I counted 9 other black students on the first day. This little observation always played in the back of my mind, and I felt like I stuck out like a dark sore thumb. This wasn’t helped by the multicoloured braids I was sporting at the time. Halls were no different: there was one other black girl a few blocks from me and one black boy. I never had much of a chance to speak to either of them, besides in the dining hall when we’d occasionally bump into each other. I met people who had never come into contact with black people before, and entertained their various questions:

You moisturise every day? That’s not your real hair? Where is it? How come you don’t have an accent?

I found it amusing at first but grew tired of constantly explaining my existence. I knew they were genuinely curious, so it felt like my responsibility to educate them the best I could. I hope I did a good job.

I knew that starting medical school would be harder than anything I’d done before, but I was completely unprepared for how steep the learning curve would be. Coming from a comprehensive school, there was a definitely a knowledge gap between myself and other students from grammar or private schools. It wasn’t necessarily the information I was lacking, but rather the new way of working I would have to adopt; I felt frustrated because it seemed easier for everyone else. I began to develop serious imposter syndrome in first year; I didn’t deserve to be here; I’m struggling and doing badly in tests. It all felt like a mistake. I spoke to my younger brother about this – he’d just moved to a grammar school from the comprehensive school we both attended. He confirmed my worries – students were taught differently in more specialist schools, and arguably more prepared for life in university. 

First and second year blended into one big grey mush; I struggled throughout, and even failed a few exams on the way. Learning felt like going through growing pains that would never stop, and exams felt like impossible mountain ranges I had to climb barefoot; every cut underfoot a reminder of my worthlessness. It’s a constant battle to remind yourself that you deserve to be there, but it’s a battle worth fighting.

I made the drastic decision to cut most of my hair at the end of first year but kept my hair in braids for most of second year anyway; I didn’t know how to look after it yet. I somehow managed to pull through second year, amidst my intense feelings of failure and depression, and continued on to third year. I remember being determined to make this year different; I had to begin to see myself as the doctor I’d always envisioned myself to be. The year began with a research project, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite a myriad of things going wrong, and I did better than I’d ever done in previous years. Then came placements.

Starting placement posed another enormous mountain I had to climb: I had to juggle what felt like a 9-5 job whilst studying for exams that would come at the end of the placement. I felt my body ache once again as new growing pains set in, but at least I had new black brogues on my feet, a purple stethoscope around my neck, and a solid afro for the journey. 

Being on the wards is not what I’d seen on TV; there isn’t always an emergency going on, and no one seems to realise how bad it actually smells. After a few weeks, I became known as “the girl with the hair” because I had my afro out at all times. Patients would comment on how different it was, but in a nice way. The junior doctors would never refer to me as Teddy, but as “the girl with the hair”. I didn’t have much of a problem with this at first – I am pretty much the only medical student in that hospital with an afro. But I’m more than my hair, and it feels disheartening to be reduced down to something so superficial. Some staff members would just stare at me for uncomfortably long periods of time. It was mostly black members of staff that did this, and it was always the same expression. I still can’t work out if they’re positive stares, but they definitely make me uncomfortable. 

Despite all the struggle, I’m enjoying medical school so far. I’ve found a new love for psychiatry, and hopefully that will become my reality. I am still acutely aware that in smaller hospital placements in the future, I may have to prepare for micro-aggressions and prejudice from patients and staff, as I’ve heard a few of my friends have had to deal with that. I hope I’m able to be strong and use every experience, both good and bad, to make me a better and an even more compassionate doctor in the future. There’s still a year between that day and I, but I’m excited for the journey. I might need new brogues soon though. 

About the Author

Teddy is a fourth year medical student at the University of Nottingham, currently interested in specialising in Psychiatry in the future. Teddy runs the successful instagram blog The Teddybearmedic.

Below is is short interview from Teddy about her medical school experiences:

Where did you apply to medical school and any advice?

I applied to Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Keele for medicine. Nottingham was my first choice because of the integrated course. Although I was also intrigued by Manchester’s PBL structure.

I found the application process quite stressful. I didn’t know anyone in medical school, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d definitely say anyone planning on applying should start early! Revise for your UKCAT/BMAT exams early (because I didn’t and was stressed beyond belief), and take your time writing your personal statement, as that’s your first impression!

Any Advice for medical students?

My biggest advice is not to heat yourself up and have more confidence in your own abilities! Medical school can really make you feel like you’re never doing enough or that you’re not smart enough, but try to constantly remind yourself that you deserve to be here.

What is the strangest thing to happen to you during medical school so far?

Once during clinical skills, we were told we would be practicing testicular exams. I wasn’t expecting to be practicing on real patients! The funny part was after trying the examination, the patient stopped to tell everyone I had “the perfect touch”.

2 thoughts on “The Girl with the Hair

  1. I’m glad you stuck it out through medical school! I had one interview and one offer and unfortunately I missed out on an offer by 2 marks! I’m hoping to study post graduate medicine though!

    1. I’ve passed your comment on to Teddy.
      As a Postgrad medical student I wish you the best of luck! Feel free to send me a message if you need any advice.

      Abigail x

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