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What was your path into medicine? Hundreds of doctors have shared their stories on social media, using the #mypathtomedicine hashtag. We invited several to tell their stories at greater length. In the first, Welsh GP Cliff Jones describes how he overcame personal adversity, and the feeling of ‘not belonging’.
I grew up as the second of four boys on the Llyn peninsula in rural north-west Wales. My parents had left school when they were 16, Dad working in forestry and later as a taxi driver, and my mother worked in care homes and restaurants often holding two jobs and working nights. I was quiet and bookish compared to my brothers.
I did well at school, but took that for granted. My brothers were more practical and sporty, and my parents treated us all the same. My parents were always encouraging, but as neither of them had excelled at school I was left to my own devices when learning and reading. We managed, but money was tight. We were encouraged to get jobs and save up, and I spent most of my teenage years working in a restaurant kitchen at weekends and during holidays.
I did well at secondary school, and had a couple of teachers who encouraged me to push myself. But I didn't really have any role models. My favourite subjects were science and maths, but I also enjoyed talking to people and finding out about them.
I can't remember when exactly, but from this I got the idea that I'd like to be a doctor or a teacher. I remember my grandmother speaking very highly of the family GP (she'd always insist on tidying up before he visited). My grandfather came to live with us for a while when he had lung cancer, and I'd sit with him to keep him company as the doctors and district nurses would come and go. This probably influenced me on some level, but I think the main driver was that I wanted to do something my parents would be proud of.
My family were pleased, but the truth is they didn't know what it would mean for me or them. Nobody in my immediate family had done A levels, let alone gone to university. All but one of my aunts and uncles still lived within a 15-mile radius. You went to school, you got a job, then you settled down a few miles down the road from your parents. No-one discouraged me from applying for medicine, but other than moral support they couldn't give me any practical support.
The biggest thing for me was the unknown. being a doctor seemed like a good idea. I wanted to go to university. But I'd need to figure it all out. It's funny looking back, but lack of money was not something that influenced my decision. I'd manage somehow, my parents always had and so would I. I worked hard at college. My peers would go to private tutors after college to try to get some extra study time, but my parents couldn't afford that for me so I would study at home with second-hand books.
For me the biggest hurdles came when I started at medical school in Cardiff. I'd done all of my education until then through the medium of Welsh. Adjusting to the university environment was challenging. My parents supported me through university, but there was always the feeling that I had to look after myself because I'd too feel guilty to ask for more money - because they simply didn't have any. I survived on a partial grant, student loan, and applied for emergency support grants a couple of times.
The other setback during university was when my brother died due to suicide during my second year. Suddenly university wasn't as important, but my parents were determined that I carried on with my course - my mother even came to stay with me in Cardiff for a few weeks. I struggled at that point and did tend to miss lectures, but things improved as the course changed and I had more clinical placements and I started to realise that I could actually do this.
I did a lot of research, I pored over prospectuses, read books about applying to medical school. My college careers adviser was a great help in helping me identify opportunities, in particular a work experience scheme in London for pupils from rural Wales. On that scheme I spent a week in the academic psychiatry department at Charing Cross Hospital. Without that I don't think I'd have gotten into medical school.
A colleague of mine recently told me that if she had her time over again, she probably wouldn't do medicine. I would. If I'm honest, I think I was lucky to get into medical school, and luckier still to get through medical school. I remember feeling like an outsider, feeling very 'average'.
I often felt like I didn't belong there in my first couple of years at university, more so after my brother died. But it all started to click into place when I did more clinical work. It took me a while after qualifying to shake that feeling off completely, of not being as good as my peers. It was probably my GP training that finally made me feel like I deserved to be a doctor and that it was ok to be ambitious and have aspirations. That it doesn't matter where or what you come from, it's what you do that's important.
Cliff Jones is a GP principal. He is also the Macmillan primary care lead for the Wales Cancer Network, and end-of-life care lead for RCGP Wales.
Great article Cliff
Really inspiring, thanks for sharing your journey
Enjoyed this real life story, you are resilient and determined cliff and your parents I'm sure are very proud of you.
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