Rejected, Reflected, Accepted: My journey into Medicine – Is taking a gap year worth it?

March 2016: 4 rejections received.

March 2018: 1st year medical student at King’s College London.

After receiving 4 rejections from my chosen universities to study Medicine during my first application cycle, admittedly I felt defeated. But as A-level exams drew closer, I knew I had to redirect my focus towards achieving the grades I knew I could. My burning desire to study Medicine was not going to go away that easily!

Deciding to take a gap year was not an impulsive decision nor was it one that I entered into lightly and making that decision earlier on in the process allowed me to plan out my year effectively. The main aim of my gap year was to secure a place at medical school of course, but it was also a time in my life where I wanted to make personal growth, to experience new things and become more independent.

October 2016 rolled around soon after results day and I found myself starting my first day at my new job as a healthcare assistant at my local NHS hospital. As the keen new employee, I was elated at the chance to experience healthcare from a different perspective: as one of the staff as opposed to being on the outside looking in as a work experience student. My ward – a combination of Rheumatology, Elderly Medicine and Infectious Diseases – depicted the chaotic, busy NHS we often see plastered across the front pages of newspapers. It accommodated 21 patients at any one time and very rarely did we have empty beds! Cardiac arrests, sudden deaths and patients with distressing and uncomfortable conditions became part of my everyday working life. However, above all else, what brought me into work for my 12-hour long days and night shifts were the patients. The gratitude I was shown for the little things I did for them confirmed within me that working in healthcare was going to give me the personal fulfilment and lifetime satisfaction I wanted for myself. A chat with a patient; helping them to brush their teeth in the morning; offering a cup of tea and even the tasks that made up my job role such as toileting and washing were some of the moments where I realised I was making a change, contributing to improving the quality of life of each patient I came across, however small that may have been in the grand scheme of things.

Needless to say, working at a hospital was far from easy. Surrounded by sick people and anxious relatives for majority of your day has a toll on both your physical and mental health. I would listen to nurses tell me how stressed and tired they were; junior doctors who’d been working 4 16-hour shifts in a row that they’d forgotten what a good night’s sleep felt like and student nurses querying if this was really the career they set out to pursue. The NHS is undeniably understaffed and overworked – a deadly combination that is slowly but surely destroying morale and not giving us the chance to be the compassionate, kind human beings we are (which is why nearly all of us decide to enter the healthcare profession). Sitting down and having a chat with a patient is a luxury before somebody else needs you. It made me reflect on how my role would change when I graduated from medical school in years to come. What could I do to make a positive contribution to the NHS? What could be done to make it more viable and live up to its core principles: that it meets the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery and that it be based on clinical need not ability to pay?

These questions along with always having wanted to travel made me wonder what healthcare was like abroad and so, my annual leave was spent in the Dominican Republic with the Gap Medics programme. As opposed to my healthcare assistant role which was ward-based care, the Gap Medics programme threw me into the more surgical side of things. I had witnessed surgeries I won’t have the chance to see before my foundation years as a junior doctor here in the UK! Procedures ranged from C-sections to hysterectomies to cosmetic procedures like abdominoplasties and vaginoplasties (yes, vaginal reconstruction). I noticed the dexterity and concentration surgeons had to have in the operating room as well as the care that they must continue to give to the patient on and off of the operation table. I could barely stand up for a 4-hour abdominoplasty, but it was light work for them!

During my 3 weeks stay I saw private, public and community healthcare in action and how that differed from the UK 4248 miles away. Private healthcare was where I witnessed most surgeries and it was of a pristine standard – hence why it was only provided if you could afford it, something we have strived to avoid in the UK. Public hospitals lacked the standard of hygiene and infection control we take so seriously in the UK, but the common denominators remained: the public hospitals were poorly funded and understaffed. Community healthcare was an entirely different experience and took place in Bateys (sugar worker towns). Here, most of the residents were Haitian and had travelled to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane for a living. They lived in communities with poor hygiene and sanitation, often hours away from hospitals as sugar cane grows in rural areas. We would set up clinics (much like our local GP surgeries in the UK) and hold consultations with the doctor, prescribing and supplying medications to those who needed them. It was eye-opening, and our team saw around 150 patients in a day’s work.

As well as our healthcare work experience, every Thursday evening we would visit the local orphanage Orfanato Niños de Cristo and teach the children English. The orphanage welcomed children from the Dominican Republic and Haiti who had been abandoned and/or abused or who have lived in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Because government funds are extremely limited in the Dominican Republic, the orphanage is one of the few ways that these children have a better chance at life. I met a lovely girl who really enjoyed learning English with me and anticipated taking Snapchat photos every week I saw her. In addition to this, I made lifelong friends from all over the globe during the programme who hope to work in healthcare whether that be as doctors, nurses or community providers. We got involved in a range of fun activities around the amazing country such as snorkelling, boat trips, horse riding and quad biking. I will never forget my once-in-a-lifetime experience there.

Apart from missing the Dominican Republic so much, coming back to work made me appreciate the NHS and I was proud that I got to live in the only country in the world that had a healthcare service like it. Throughout the rest of my gap year I worked, travelled (some of the places being Rome, Spain, Morocco and Paris) and even passed my driving test and bought my first car! All of which changed me as a person – I felt as though I’d accomplished and grown so much! Most importantly, I was invited to interview at all 4 of my medical school choices and as you can see, I had so much to talk about! My transition was from uninformed, nervous sixth form student who thought she wanted to study medicine to an adult who had a much deeper understanding about the degree I was going into from my experiences and wider reading who knew she wanted to study medicine. I secured offers from 3 out of 4 of my medical schools and I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year at King’s College London so far! Every day I feel as though I am transitioning; changing and growing as I progress through my degree and in the future, in my career. Medicine is more than just a job – it’s a life commitment – and the transition from medical student to doctor will be the biggest one yet.

Written by Jessica O’Logbon

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