An interview with a new physiotherapy graduate, whose experience as a patient inspired her to pursue a whole new career
By Jennifer Trueland
It was when she was treating her last patient on her final student placement that Rachael Bailey really felt she had become that ‘magical’ thing – a physiotherapist.
Her clinical educator had challenged her to get a flicker or a muscle movement in a patient’s foot, and had given her five minutes in which to do it. ‘It was a foot that we were ge tting nothing from although we’d been trying desperately hard,’ she explains. ‘I did it after about three minutes. At that point I was like, it’s happened, I’m there, I’m a physio, I can do this. When we first met that patienthe was pretty much bedbound, and after this, he walked. That’s what nearly made me cry.’
That sense of achievement was hard-won. When Rachael was just 19 (she is now 25) she was hit by a devastating illness that left her unable to move, talk, eat or even breathe for herself. She could commuicate only by looking at objects – she couldn’t even blink as she couldn’t open or close her eyelids. At that time, she had just started studying criminology and psychology at Liverpool John Moores University and confesses that she had little notion of what a physiotherapist did. But her experience in hospital – including months in intensive care and rehabilitation – inspired a career path change.
‘I had been at university for six weeks and I was having a brilliant time,’ explains Rachael. ‘I had been feeling a bit poorly, but I’d been going out a lot, and I ended up seeing the out-of-hours GP. They told me that all freshers thought they had meningitis and treated me for a UTI. It cleared up and I figured that clearly they were right and I was just being a bit pathetic.’
She went home to Nottingham to see her family for the weekend and on a night out with friends, she noticed her legs felt strange – heavy and with tingling feet. The next morning she could barely get up, but put it down to a hangover or possibly a trapped nerve. Her condition continued to worsen, and the next day she woke up unable to move, and was taken by ambulance to Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham.
Seizure almost killed her
Within three hours, she had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a neurological disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. ‘I remember them saying Guillain-Barré to me, so I gave it a Google and I thought “this is going to be fine”. I was 19, I used to go to the gym every day. I thought this only happens to older folks, it isn’t going to happen to me. But I sent it to my mum who went into panic mode.’
Her mother was right: the condition spread until it had affected her whole body and after a few days she was transferred to ITU and ventilated. Then she suffered a grand mal seizure which almost killed her and left her mother, who witnessed it, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rachael was transferred to Nottingham City Hospital for further treatment and started the long process to recovery. ‘I started to get my facial expressions back, then my eyebrows, and my shoulders – which meant I could become very expressive,’ she says, admitting that at this point, she probably became ‘a proper diva’. ‘I don’t think I was as much of a diva that I was disliked, but I was definitely enough of a diva that I made someone’s shift hard work,’ she confesses.
It was around this time that she started to be aware of the input from physiotherapists, particularly the respiratory team. ‘I have a phobia of vomit and having my chest cleared by the physios made me feel I was going to be sick. I just hated it. But the chest physios were just incredible because once they realised this, they went through a list of things to try to make it easier for me. The thing they found that worked was that if they were to hand over complete control to me. They did that by teaching me about what they were doing, so that when they came in, I knew exactly what was happening, exactly why they were doing it, and I would be the one to give them the say-so.
‘I had no idea what physiotherapists did. I thought they just fixed people who played football and things like that. I do remember them coming in and saying they were the physios, and I remember thinking “why the hell are the physios here”?’ she laughs.
When you’re living with it, you don’t always take in the progress that you’re making on a day to-day basis, but when I saw the progress other people were making I found it so incredible and inspiring
One of these was respiratory physio Eleanor Douglas who went on to become Rachael’s tutor when she went to university, while the neurological physio was Volker Teweleit, who was to be clinical educator on her last placement.
There was much more physiotherapy when she was transferred to the neuro-rehabilitation unit, Linden Lodge and she admits that she didn’t take to it very well at first.
‘As much as I can look back now and I’m so grateful for the situation, I pretty much hated all of it; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I was horrible to everyone.
‘I think that part of me thought I’d done the hard bit because I’d come out of ICU, but then there was the realisation that this was the hard bit because now I have to regain my function.’
She recalls one day when she’d been taken into the gym and they were trying to help her stand on the floor. ‘I had had enough and I had a toddler’s tantrum. I was flinging myself around screaming.’
They took her back to her room, then one of the physios came to speak to her. ‘She said “look Rachael, we know this is really hard, we know you don’t want to be here, and we know that you’re finding this really painful, but if you want to leave hospital you have to do this.” It just clicked for me then, and I think it was two weeks after that that I stood up for the first time. It wasn’t a perfect stand, but for the first time I thought “I can do this”.’
Putting experience into practice
Once she recovered, Rachael went back to university in Liverpool before realising she wanted to change tack and become a physiotherapist. This involved taking an access course, and brought her back to Nottingham and the places she had herself been treated.
Today, armed with a first class degree in physiotherapy, she has her first job, working in Harefield Hospital just outside London, part of the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.
Rachael’s own experience as a patient has obviously had a big impact, and she can’t wait to put it into practice, despite her initial lack of knowledge and negative feelings about the profession. ‘Even though I’d hated [having] respiratory physio, I’d found it really interesting,
and when I learned about the different areas of physio, I was like “wow”,
I’d had no idea. In rehab, it was seeing other people’s rehabilitation that made me think “this is magic – these people are amazing”. When you’re living with it you don’t always take in the progress that you’re making on a day-to-day basis, but when I saw the progress other people were making I found it so incredible and so inspiring. I know it was a team effort, but when I was in the gym and could see it happen, I just thought it was incredible the way they were changing people’s lives.’
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