What happens when you combine a PhD with sudden illness?

Last November, after several months of feeling generally unwell and a bit iffy, I started collapsing out of the blue. It had never happened before, and at first I was vaguely bemused and confused. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it. I went to my GP who thought it would likely go away on its own. After a few tests and a bizarre red herring (thankfully I don’t have ovarian cancer, but it was nice to rule that out) I became worse and worse until I eventually ended up in hospital in February, rushed in an ambulance with all the lights flashing, having collapsed four times in one evening and unable to really stand up by myself.

That’s when the (very slow progressing) fun started. From A&E to the Emergency Assessment Unit, to the Acute General Medicine ward, followed by neurological examinations, tests, and chatting to various specialists. I spent my 23rd birthday in hospital, next to a lovely young woman whose brain lesion was causing repeated seizures. I shared out my birthday cake with the nurses. They ordered a bunch of tests and eventually, reluctantly, sent me home, none the wiser.

So after a brief hospital vacation, I tried to go back to my neglected PhD. Before the health issues, I’d been so wrapped up in conquering the first stage of doctoral research: trying to work through the exhilarating and admittedly daunting prospect of scoping out the reach of my PhD. But this had been put on hold whilst I’d been in and out of hospital. Suddenly I had to have new priorities. If I walked to the Bodleian to read that book or article, I would probably collapse, and risk having a librarian insist on ringing an ambulance. Now the intimidating prospect of an upcoming Transfer of Status paled in comparison to the prospect of attempting to walk up or down a flight of stairs. I returned some books to the Faculty of Music and paid the price of the walk by collapsing on the High Street and banging my head on the concrete. I left a positive supervision meeting wondering how I would descend a steep flight of stairs in Tom Quad without risking a nasty fall.

Eventually the college ‘powers that be’ had had enough. I’d become a liability, a regular feature at the dining hall as I collapsed during lunch or dinner. They insisted on sending me home to my parents’ house. I can’t return until I have a Certificate of Fitness to Study, and for the time being the specialists at the hospital don’t look likely to write one.

Whilst I wait for more results about my heart to be reviewed by the consultant, I have to try and work out a new balancing act. I may be constantly calling the hospital (Evelyn, wherever you are, thank you for being such a patient and helpful doctor’s secretary) but I also have to tend to my PhD. Health is so important, but we have to have things to aim for. If I get better, I have to be able to return to the research that excites me (and terrifies me – in a good way!) Friends and family members say, ‘focus on getting better!’ But if you focus solely on something you can’t control, you’ll only become frustrated.

I’m still having ‘funny turns’ several times a day, but in between those moments, I have to at least try to put everything else out of my mind and do the work that I want to do. So here’s to a new balancing act: that of health and research. Both are important.


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