There's the great Australian practice of the sea change, and then there's retraining as an adult and embarking on a whole new career. What is it about people with MS that makes so many of us go back and train at something new when we are diagnosed? I did it, and I know several others who have, too. And it certainly doesn't happen because going back to studying as an adult is any easier when living with a chronic illness!
Back in 2002, I was busy juggling clinical work and a combination of basic and clinical research. When an MS diagnosis was added into the mix, I was initially consumed by concerns about how I could maximize my career options without knowing exactly how MS was going to affect me. The first thing I did have to give up was lab work – it simply isn’t possible with a tremor and unreliable vision. But lab work isn’t all there is to basic research. Someone has to design the project, achieve funding, analyse the results and write them up for publication. I've always enjoyed the thinking and writing parts of the process far more than the "test tube" bit, so in some ways it was an easy decision to undertake formal training in statistics a few years after my diagnosis to improve my skills in analysing data.
It probably wasn’t a totally sensible decision to enrol in a full-time post-graduate degree at the same time as continuing in full-time work, but I wanted that extra qualification and skill set FAST. I think I was driven by fear of what other skills I might lose. Looking back, I can't believe what I crammed into one year, just for the sake of finishing the course as quickly as possible! It's a year that is almost blurred in my memory - where every weekend was spent reading the material for next week's classes and I ended up needing more IV steroids than in any other year of my life so far, including a dose on the same day as one of my final exams. But I did it! I wouldn't do it the same way if I did it again, but I'm glad I did it. A sizeable chunk of the work I can now do at home relies on the skills I gained - and there’s no shortage of scientists keen to collaborate with a physician who knows a few stats!
Part of the reason I went back to study was to gain a skill set that did not depend on manual dexterity or mobility - but there was more to it than that. I have always loved playing with numbers. MS “gave me permission” to take this passion and make it a bigger part of my life; to deviate from the standard clinician/researcher pathway and do something a little different and interesting to me. There is a certain freedom to be gained when a chronic, unpredictable illness enters your world – the freedom to stop and think about what you want most from life, and how you want to use the abilities you have.
MS can easily be viewed as an affliction that only takes things away from us. But I hope it can also teach us the real value of each day and the function we have. Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many of those with MS who are still able to do so return to study and retrain in something that is meaningful or enjoyable to them? Whatever your motives, if you are one of the many people with MS who is contemplating starting a course of some description, rest assured you are not alone! And if you’d like some practical tips on how to prepare for tackling adult education at the same time as living with a chronic illness, there are some sensible blogs on the topic written by those who have been there before with a variety of MS-related disabilities. This one from Joan Jordan is a good place to start.
The Unaffected One