Thursday, 31 January 2013

Suffering Well

On occasion, in the past, I would find myself complaining about an unfortunate incident that would have happened to me.  My flatmate at the time, and now one of my dearest friends, would be subjected to listen to me complain.  On one such day of complaining, I remember saying to her "Why me!" and she replied, with perfect comedic timing, "And why not!"

Going through suffering is something we all have to endure at every stage of our lives.  The scale of the event causing the suffering can arguably be measured objectively, but the distress it causes to the individual is subjective.  For example, a toddler falls and scrapes his knee.  This is clearly not the end of the world but given the way the toddler is screaming the place down you might expect it to be so.  Suffering is unique to the individual person.  For the bystanders, the most helpful thing to do is laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry.

It is not possible to avoid suffering but is it possible to suffer well?  It is easy to mistake someone who is suffering well with someone who is putting on a brave face through their trials.  That is not suffering well.  Nor is it denying your circumstances.  Nor is it pinning your hopes on a false notion that things will get better - believe me, that is a devastating mistake.  To suffer well is to let go of control and to trust in the one who is in control.  A large part of my suffering in the past was formed by my need to be in control and control the environment around me.  But if I was totally honest, I wasn't in control of anything either in suffering or out of it.  You could say that I was in control of my daily routine; not the case when I sleep through my alarm!

I have faced a lot of suffering in my life, but the one thing that I have noticed is that suffering produces perseverance and it refines your character.  It is often said, that when they are at their lowest point, that is where they find God. This is certainly true in my case.  It is really hard to describe something that is invisible, but I knew God was with me through those terrible times.  There was this one time when I was so distressed and I cried out to God and immediately this calmness descended on me like a thick blanket and I felt safe.

The trials that I have faced, have drawn me closer to God and have built my faith in Him.  All I need to do is take a trip down memory lane and I can see where He has helped me and brought me through.  But what's more amazing is that I know that God actually understands and feels my pain too. I know in my heart that God looks after me, just because I suffer in this life, does not change that fact.  God doesn't inflict suffering on people, that is the job of the enemy and the effects of sin, but he does use all things for the good of those who love him.

When you know God, you can rest.  You find that strength will rise up inside of you that is not your own.  To suffer well is to keep your eyes on the goal.  The goal is not to have an easy life, but to run the race of life with perseverance; not giving up half way; not choosing a different path but keep on keeping on with your eyes fixed on Jesus.  It is then, at the end of this life, when you will hear the sweetest words any Christian can wish to hear, "Well done good and faithful servant".  And that is how you suffer well.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013


How would you answer the question "who are you"?  In the past up until the recent present I would have always answered that question  by saying "I'm Stari and i'm a medical student".  But when I think about it, that's not a very useful answer.  My name in itself doesn't tell you anything about what makes me me.  Nor does my occupation - you may be able to infer some things about me from it, but it doesn't tell you anything really meaningful. Maybe, then, the answer is to add in a few more things that you do as part of your identity, for example hobbies.  Granted, that might provide some more information about what you do but not about who you are or the essence of you.

But here's  the thing, if you define yourself by what you do, what do you do when you no longer can do the things you always did?  Who are you then?  This is something that I discovered with my first bout of cancer and its something that I am revisiting again now.  Being ill, I am not able to any of the things I did before.  Does that mean that my identity has now changed to being a nobody?  Or a patient?  I personally don't think that something so fundamental as identity can change so flippantly. Being a cancer patient tells you what I am doing but not who I am.  Cancer is not my identity.

For me, my identity is kept safe in God.  This is one thing that will never change.  While, the things of this life will perish, God will never change, He will always stay the same.  Having my identity in God means  that I am rooted and have my feet planted.  Then when life's disasters hit I will not be destroyed.  Imagine yourself in a ship wreck at sea.  There is lots of debris being tossed and turned in the violent sea.  If you decide to cling to those bits and pieces and save them from the wreckage your fate will be sealed along with the debris and you will be at the merci of the raging sea.  However, if you find a rock that is rooted and you cling to that, despite how many times the breakers and the waves crash down on you, you will not perish.

This is a lesson that I have had to learn the hard way.  There have been countless times where I have found myself out at sea clinging to my possessions only to go down with them.  I have had numerous identity meltdowns when I have lost what I was clinging onto.  But now that I know who I am, I can rest.  I know who I am is safe in God's hands because He will never fail me.

So who am I?  I am a Child of God.

Monday, 28 January 2013

How Long Does It Take To Do A Medical Degree?

Well, for me the answer to that would be equivalent to "how long is a piece of string?"  As you may have gathered already I am a medical student and I have managed to get to year four of what is normally a five year course.  But in actual fact, this is my sixth year doing this course; needless to say, it has not been an easy ride.

Our story begins on a bright sunny day in September 2007 in Leeds.  I remember walking into the medical school bright eyed and bushy tailed, a keen bean, an eager beaver, ready to take on the challenge of becoming a doctor.  The first challenge that I had to face, however, was myself.  As a teenager, I had struggled with depression and anxiety.  This is not your usual feeling down or being worried, what I struggled with was paralytic fear which would descend into a helplessness that was so thick and dark, it was all consuming.  However, I had been free from such ailments for a couple of years between leaving school in 2005 and starting in Leeds.  In those two years, I was at St Andrews University (no I didn't meet the prince before you ask) studying biology and psychology.  In 2007, I left that degree to come down to Leeds to study medicine.  It was then that the monster of depression reared its ugly head once again in my life.  It's really hard to describe what it is like to be depressed if you haven't experienced it yourself.  It is like you have to wade through a muddy river carrying world on your shoulders in the thickest fog and you don't know when it is going to end.  As a result of this, I failed my exam and had to retake that module the following year; this meant I wasn't going to be able to progress into year 2 with all of my friends.  I remember feeling a huge sense of shame about failing and it ate away at me slowly.

But anyway, my year out came and went and I finally had made it into year 2.  It was two weeks into starting  the course again when I found a lump on my neck.  That started a chain reaction of endless tests, medical miscommunication and finally, a diagnosis on the 23rd December of Hodkin Lymphoma  - cancer.  So that was that, I came out of university again to start chemotherapy once every two weeks for six months.  My journey through that would take a book to tell, but long story short, it was really hard.

September 2010 dawns and I have been chemo free for a couple of months when I return to university, back into year 2.  I actually managed to complete year 2 and year 3 in a oner, which was a major achievement for me! And now we are up to year 4 when I get the news that I have cancer again.  Once again, I have to leave the course; the difference this time is that I don't know for how long.  The end of this degree is tantalisingly close but again so far away.  The future is ahead is unknown and uncertain and I find myself asking the question if I had three months to live, would I be doing what I'm doing now?  I don't think so.  I can't really imagine myself on my death bed saying "if only I finished that medical degree!".  But then I guess most of us, if we are are honest, wouldn't be doing what we are doing if we knew when our time was up.  Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy it, but is it what I enjoy the most?  Do I live to work or do I work to live?

It makes me wonder what it is about death that really focuses the mind and makes us take a look at our priorities.  Is it fear? But then fear of what? Dying? Pain? What's on the other side?  Or is it regret?  Regret for not stewarding the time were given well? Not doing what really matters?  I don't know.  I don't fear death because of my faith in Jesus but I think what has focused my mind is using my time in this life wisely; doing what I was made to do.  My brother once said that Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the earth, but if you put him in a rowing boat, he will lose.  He was made to run, not row.  

So how long does it take to do a medical degree? God knows.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Back here again?

This is an ammonite fossil.  What I find interesting about it is the intricate spiral pattern.  I don't like going round in circles. A lot of the time I feel like I've already faced a particular trial and now I'm back here again. This picture only shows you a lump of dark grey rock, but what I can see when I hold it is that with every step up, with every rotation, round the fossil it shines and glimmers a little different each time.  Maybe the same can be said for the events of this life - even though I have been here before there will be something new, something beautiful, to see amongst the dark grey rock.

Time for some catch up.  I am currently writing this blog in hospital and I have been here since Monday.  Two weeks ago I was told that I have an aggressive form of leukaemia (acute myeloid leukaemia - for those who are interested in terminology) that has been cause by the chemotherapy treatment I had 3 years ago for the Hodgkin Lymphoma.  The doctors have said that this is incredibly rare for this to have happened and now I have to stay in hospital for about five weeks at a time getting intensive chemo to cure the cancer that was caused by the chemo - go figure.

I have had one of the worst weeks of my life this week.  I had a very rare reaction to one of the chemo drugs which made my brain swell (encephalitis) .  I was severely ill for four days and today is the first day that I have any strength.  Yesterday, it got to the point that, if death were an option, I would have taken it gladly - and I do not say that light heartedly.  I just couldn't go on.    But, with some calming words from the docs, encouragement from friends and a shed load of prayer, I did continue to take the treatment and I feel much better today.

I spoke to a Chaplain today, we shall call him Charlie.  We had communion (those pocket communion things are amazing!) and a really interesting chat.  I guess what I learned today was that each trial or difficulty I have faced has built up my faith so that I can look back and know that if God has got me through A B and C, which have increased in intensity, in the past then He will get me through X Y and Z in the future.  But, it does make me wonder if this could be building up to a bigger test of faith!

From Me to You: Medics make the Worst Patients.

I have decided that it might be useful to reflect (how we dislike that word) on what it is like to be a patient for the benefit of us all; here are my initial observations.

  1. I have been put in a side room and am being kept in isolation for infection control.  Although I know and understand the reasons why people entering the room have to where a gown and gloves, as a patient, it does make you feel like your a bit of an outcast or someone to be held at arms length.  
  2. Also, using jargon to wiggle your way out of a question does not go down well, especially if you actually understand the jargon! If you don't know go find out and then don't "forget" to come back.
  3. The nurses are amazing, bake them cookies!
That's all for now folks, signing out.