Guest Blog: But You Don't Look Sick - A Dental Student's Experience with Chronic Illness

I would like to introduce something a little different.... a really insightful guest blog from Shona Sawhney, a fourth year dental student at Barts & The London, describing her experiences as a dental student with chronic illness...

Shona, a fourth year dental student at Barts & The London

In my third year of dental school, I started to notice a decline in my health. Fatigue, joint pain and stiffness took a big toll on me. Not only did this affect my clinical skills at university, but also my day to day life. Goals such as doing well in exams and passing gateway tests were quickly changed to being able to cook or take a walk without assistance. 

Being told that these symptoms would not go away but would instead need to be managed was really hard for me to accept. I felt such frustration that, through no fault of my own, dentistry become a lot harder for me. I would often enter the clinic feeling very anxious and fearful that once clinics were over, I would be in a huge amount of pain. Tutors were often extremely surprised when I told them what I was experiencing, mainly because in general I didn't look sick. In fact, I looked completely healthy, yet I was suffering from an invisible illness.

Dental school is often exceptionally fast-paced, and although this can be exciting t times, it can also be incredibly stressful. For this reason, it is important to have outlets to channel that stress; for me it was music and the gym. However, as time went on any condition worsened, I struggled to maintain these hobbies. I felt like I had no way to relieve the stress I was under, not just with my education, but with the deterioration of my health.  

During this period, it became apparent to me how important accessibility is in the field of dental field, not just for our patients, but for dental professionals themselves too. Being asked by tutors "what can we do to help" it truly meant a lot to me. I felt for a long time almost an outsider to the profession, but small changes such as seeing oral surgery students exclusively in the afternoon, allowed me to rest my joints after clinic. 

It is very easy during dental school to compare yourself your peers, it can become quite a competitive environment, and when managing your condition, it is hard not to become frustrated. Learning to celebrate the small victories throughout the journey really helped me in managing my condition. An example for me would be the classic crowns gateway usually taken in 3rd year. Due to constant flare ups, I was unable to complete the exam during the last term. However, when the 4th year revalidation came, my mindset changed. Instead of belittling myself and saying "You must pass this", I started telling myself, "I am proud of you for giving it your best." This ability to be kinder to myself not only allowed me to take the exam, but pass it!

Chronic illness can fluctuate massively. Some days will be generally okay while some will be very difficult both physically and mentally. As I have learnt more about my condition, I have discovered certain coping mechanisms for my metaphorical "tool box" to manage the tough days. For me, one of them was talking to a trusted tutor about what can help me through the flare ups, which included implementing a simple card to carry to show tutors explaining my condition and what they could do to support me. I find going into the clinics on a flare up can be very nerve-racking because you're worried people won't understand. However, showing clinicians the card before patients come allows them to understand what you are going through without going into too much depth which may affect you mentally but enough for them to know the main take home message: how to support you.

I was often told with my condition that dentistry was not for me. Such statements can hugely affect a person's confidence instead of instilling it like it should be. There is a place for those with chronic illness within the dental profession. Everything is achievable with the appropriate backing and measures put in place to help you. 

Thanks so much Shona for this piece. So important to share your experiences and I am sure we all admire your resilience and strength! Please share your support or if you have had experiences like Shona's in the comments below.

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  1. Such an eye opening piece with a really important message!! So proud of you Shona ❤️


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