Updated: Sep 27, 2020
By Sanna Masood
Helloooooooo!! My name's Sanna, I'm a 2nd year medic at Bristol and I own a pair of yellow crocs.
So, I've had dyslexia my whole life. Dyslexia is a reading disorder, which is not characterized by intelligence. Most people are surprised to hear that I have it, but the truth is, I've never known any different and so have just learned to cope. The way I see it is that those who struggle with learning cannot be compared to another who struggles because there are varying degrees. The main problems we face as dyslexics (again, it's relative to each person) is difficulty in spelling, writing, reading quickly, mispronunciation and extreme difficulty in understanding what one has just read.
I've had ups and many, many downs. I've struggled right from primary school to present. Just like with any disability that comes under the Disability Act of 2010, there are moments when you as an individual feel completely humiliated. The earliest memory I have of my dyslexia affecting my learning was in Year 3 or 4 (can't quite remember). It was nearing the end of a comprehension lesson when we were going round the classroom to give our answers. So, I did some quick maths and calculated the question I was supposed to answer, well I hadn't even reached it yet - I had probably managed 2/3 questions after the hour. I vividly remember beginning to sweat with anxiety. No kid wants to feel that way. I guess that was the age when subconsciously, I started to improve on improvising and verbal communication.
During Year 13 of A-levels, my sixth form had asked people to take a 'mini' dyslexic assessment to see whether they were eligible for extra time - I call it 'mini' as it took 30 mins, whereas the 'proper' one takes 3-4 hours. This was a month before the exams. I knew I struggled in a different way compared to others and so thought it wouldn't do me any harm to get some extra time. After all, time is a luxury you cannot afford during exams. The dyslexic assessment tests a range: vision, reading, memory and spelling skills.
When no teacher picks up on your learning difficulty, you begin to cope, more like internal force. Struggling is a complete norm for you. I obviously didn't think anything of it until halfway through my second year at uni. This was when I was properly diagnosed. Assessments one after the other, both student finance and my university had paid 1000's of pounds for me to be diagnosed. In my head I was like, "this is something pretty serious then!"
There are days when it flares up and I do not want to study at all. Other days, I remind myself that the interviewer's saw something in me. They thought I would be worth investing in to become a fantastic doctor. Just like any med student’s journey, I had that imposter syndrome creep up on me, with the added fact that learning is tricky at times for me.
I believe with cons, there are always pros. Both SFE and The University of Bristol have provided me with unconditional support, whether that'd be extended deadlines, alternative exam arrangements, a mentor or "here ya go, here's a printer, it’s on the house".
My mental health suffered drastically at the expense of my learning. Right from fresher's week, I somehow managed to get tonsillitis, followed by glandular fever. I literally was bed bound. I wasn't attending teaching.
By the time my health was in a state to say "borderline able to attend teaching", I didn't because I'd missed the foundation knowledge which I was trying to catch up on. It meant I'd be missing the in-depth system teaching, which was to come. I attended the biomedical practical's, anatomy, CBL tutorials. But I had no idea what was going on, because I wasn't going through the lecture material in parallel to compulsory teaching. To put it shortly, it was a domino effect from there.
To this day, I'm still recovering. My anxiety after I recovered from glandular fever and tonsillitis just spiralled out of control. There are many contributing factors but the main is that my dyslexia was worsening. Perhaps because I wasn't controlling it very well. Perhaps because university learning and life is just very different to anything I've experienced before. Perhaps because I had massive imposter syndrome being surrounded by some of the most intelligent people I'd ever met. And I was frustrated with myself because I didn't see myself ever reaching their podium, or even allowed to stand strong alongside them. Because I was nothing like them. Because it took me 4 times longer to learn and understand a concept. Because I struggled and felt unsupported. Even today, I dislike the idea of working with others purely because I would inevitably slow them down. Nobody wants to be the burden.
So, what do I do in lectures? During first year, I attended around 10% of lectures in person. All lectures are recorded, unless there's a technical difficulty/the lecturer forgets to press record, which were then uploaded on the RePlay system. This I ABSOLUTLEY loved. I could play them at slower/faster speeds, 'replay' parts that I didn't grasp the concept of first time round, pause to make notes and look up things I didn't understand whilst not missing the next point the lecturer had made, which is what would happen each and every time I attended in person. Even today, sitting in a lecture, 2 mins in, I've either dosed off, started to catch up on a series, or if I feel productive, tried to finish off some other academic work. All in all, attending the lectures was a huge waste of my time. In Year 2 however, I had no choice but to attend when the med school started randomly recording attendance, and if we didn't attend 80% or more, we'd be put under review. I attended purely for that tick, to say "I was there". It was just a game of cat and mouse with the year leads. They had their reasons but for someone who benefits an absolute zero from attending lectures in person, this was a huge waste of time. I'd had meetings to discuss any options, but my learning difficulty just was not a good enough excuse. They had managed to make me believe that my struggle was equally experienced by all other peers surrounding me. What does one do then?
One of the main coping mechanisms I can think of is, I will always try to find videos explaining something new/unfamiliar, eliminating that which could be read from a book. The main issue I have with reading anything, whether it'd be academic or not, is that I fixate too much on unnecessary words. Therefore, either skim reading or better, having software read text aloud for me (yes, unfortunately it is one of those robotic voices, but it does the job) is one of my preferences. All the funny, complex spelling is also sorted with the software installed onto my laptop. These are just a few tools aiding me to reach that same goal, but much quicker. The best tool is my support officer. Communicating with someone who understands the frustration and struggle relieves me greatly of anxiety that comes hand in hand with my dyslexia.
I'm not really one to tell everyone I have dyslexia, just the ones that need to be told. People are surprised when they do hear, but more than them, I surprise myself each new day having come this far. We all struggle to learn. Just like practising a sport, religion or picking up a language, we are all on a spectrum. I believe we all are dyslexic to some extent. I was and still am at the bottom of my year academically, I believe. And being constantly surrounded by overachievers is one big way to knock your self-confidence. Therefore, I needed to find something that I really enjoy outside medicine. So, a good friend dragged me along to a Jiu Jitsu give-it-a-go. And now after months of loving training, having come 3rd nationally in my weight category, it's just one of many things that I can keep reminding myself of when things get tough from the course. Cos things do get tough.
Med school is not an easy game. Dyslexia is in no way my excuse for anything. I believe we all are fighting hidden battles and are struggling internally in some way. Of course, it's subjective and relative to someone's personal experience, which is why we should help one another. The truth is, no one's journey to get to university is the same. No human's experience is ever the same. So why would life as a medical student be the same for any one of us? It just ain't gonna happen and so we need to stop comparing ourselves to one another. I'm still learning to do that. But I hope my story has inspired you to accept the difficulty that life has thrown your way and are learning to embrace it, for no other individual will ever have the same lived experience as your wonderful selves.