A mind for medicine

by Natalia Fishman

A doctor in training discusses her experiences at medical school, and hopes for greater awareness and support for students with ADHD

Location: UK
Published: Monday 28 November 2022
Natalie fishman

I was diagnosed aged 15 after a friend asked me if I had ever thought I might have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

I had always been told by teachers I was bright and if I had concentrated a bit more, I could have been a top student. I had known I wanted to study medicine for more than half a decade before my diagnosis and was incredibly fortunate I had managed to obtain it before receiving too many discouraging comments from those around me.

People with ADHD are more sensitive to criticism than the average person and, as with many others, this may have put me off at the time and I would not have got to where I am now, starting my medical career as a foundation year 1 doctor.

I am fortunate I was diagnosed when I was and received medication around the critical period of GCSEs and A-levels. Many other ADHD medics are only diagnosed while at medical school and I can’t imagine how I would have otherwise arrived at that stage.

Owing to some exam-related blunders, I had to take a year out before starting the course. I hadn’t done any science (or studying for that matter) for 15 months by the time freshers’ week came around. I was filled with self-doubt about whether I was cut out for this course and was anxious about the endless amount of content we would need to learn in the next five years.

I was lucky enough to have made it to the age of 19 without having any real issues with anxiety, but this, coupled with living away from home for the first time and all the challenges which come with it meant my mental health suffered a lot.

I reached out to my – incredibly supportive – personal academic tutor and she reassured me there was no need to worry about finals in the first few weeks of year one, and that I had earned my place at medical school as everyone else had, and most importantly deserved to be there.

I also reached out to enabling services, who offered me academic support by way of study-skills sessions specifically directed at people with ADHD, and also support with my anxiety by way of hypnotherapy. I would never have expected that sort of help at university.

In all honesty I sort of bumbled along through medical school until the end of fourth year, just putting one foot in front of the other and trying to deal with each challenge as it came. I was by no means an exceptional student and was managing to do just enough to pass each year.

Oddly, I didn’t relate these things to having ADHD (rather than simply things I struggled with) until fourth year. It only then started to occur to me that, at the end of medical school, I had a whole career as a doctor to think about and ADHD wouldn’t just stop being part of my life at the end of finals.

I hadn’t come across any other medical students with ADHD in my time at Southampton and was worrying about how my impulsivity and chronic lateness would affect me as a doctor; whether I should take medication day to day; whether I should disclose my condition and to what extent; how I would manage money and a hundred other things.

This led me, with the help of the disability pastoral lead, to set up a support group for others in my position. There are now more than 20 of us and I have plans to take this nationally, partly by encouraging students at other medical schools to set up similar support groups and also creating a website where we can swap useful resources and personal stories.

I am making contact with more and more doctors with ADHD and hope this will result in a mentorship scheme so people having the doubts and concerns I did have a place to turn to. This has become by far my proudest achievement at medical school, and a lasting legacy I hope reassures people such as me considering applying to study medicine there is a place for them  and they will be supported in pursuing it as a career.

Natalia Fishman is a foundation year 1 doctor working in Portsmouth