Shout Out to the Brave podcast

Through this podcast series we will celebrate the achievements of our students as they share the challenges and successes of postgraduate study.

Shout Out to the Brave podcast series

Welcome to our Shout Out to the Brave podcast.

Through this podcast series we will celebrate the achievements of our students as they share the challenges of postgraduate study and the successes they have experienced as a result. We know that, in life, you have to take risks to reap the benefits. Our students share this same mindset.

It’s brave committing to postgraduate study. To focus on your ambition regardless of whatever else is going on in life – career, family, you. It’s not easy, but it pays off. Our students and graduates are proof of that. They’ve taken a risk and are achieving what they set out to do.

In this series you’ll find out how.

Episode one - Roberta's postgraduate journey

In this episode, hear from MSc Physician Associate Studies student Roberta. She talks about the many challenges she has overcome, from alcoholism to being a single mother, and why postgraduate studies means so much to her.

Please be aware that this podcast episode discusses the following subjects: alcoholism, sexual assault, drug use, depression, self-harm, eating disorders. Please proceed with caution if you feel you will be affected by these topics.

View transcript of episode one

Thank you for downloading this Shout Out to the Brave podcast, brought to you by UWE Bristol. In this podcast, we are joined by Roberta, a current postgraduate student studying MSc Physician Associate Studies. From alcoholism to being a single mother, Roberta discusses the many challenges she's overcome to get to where she is and why her postgraduate degree means so much to her.

My name's Roberta Johnstone, I'm a Physician Associates Masters student at the University of the West of England. I came to UWE through a bit of a random series of events actually. I had a past of addiction, alcohol and drug addiction. I went to rehab in the South West and one of my only options to go to as a move on place was Bristol. So I settled in Bristol, always knew I wanted to study, saw a Biomedical Science degree at UWE and I jumped straight on board. What led me to do post-graduate study after that was realizing through my undergraduate degree that I actually really liked people and didn't want to be stuck in a lab my whole life. Which of course had its interesting parts as well and I'm sure lots of people would say that that's the bit they enjoy rather than the dealing with people part. But wanting that people-facing element to be in my daily working life, that was really important to me, and when I found the Physician Associate master's degree at UWE, not only was it absolutely fitting me perfectly to a T, but it gave me everything that I wanted in a career. 

From when I was younger, I always had this feeling of not being good enough and feeling like I was less than everyone else. Like there's a bit of the jigsaw puzzle that wasn't there, it was missing. And all the metaphors that go along with it. When I came to UWE - I mean I was 22 when I started my degree and turned 23 I think within the first month or so - there was this massive element of feeling almost like I was back at school. And that was what really scared me. When I was at school, I just didn't fit in. But I was able to kind of get over that with the maturity that I had coming into university and being aware of who I was as a person and what I wanted in my life, rather than what other people expected of me. So being able to stand up for myself - not in a sort of physical sense but an emotional sense - and build that resilience and strength to really find myself on my academic journey, that was what I really needed. If I'd had that when I was at school, that would have been perfect. But I didn't. I didn't have the maturity at the time. 

I met some like-minded people in the first week or two of my undergrad and I knew that I fitted in just perfectly. So the opportunity arising for the Physician Associate master’s at UWE not only gave me that sort of sense of like this is a perfect degree and it's at my favourite university, but I was going to be around the same people that I fell in love with in my undergrad. I love UWE and I would never have gone anywhere else. 

In terms of challenges that I've faced in my journey and how I've overcome them…What have I not faced? I mean obviously there's some major things that I haven't faced in my life. I'm a cis white female for example, but everything that has happened in my life that has impacted my life for me has been of great importance. The “not feeling a part of” when I was growing up obviously played on my mental health. I started just lots of self-abuse really, cutting myself, getting quite heavily involved in online forums that led to me developing anorexia and subsequently bulimia. I started binge drinking when I was 15, and every now and then when it was available I’d get into drugs. Before I knew it, when I was 17 I was in an inpatient unit for children actually, children in adolescent mental health services, so CAMHS. I was an inpatient there for anorexia and I was weighing, I think 82 pounds. 

I was really done in at that point, but that didn't stop me because when I came out of there, I developed bulimia. The binge drinking became worse, and fast forward a lot of trauma including just feeling like I had to be more, had to be better. A lot of that involved sex and boys, and trying to be my best self around boys. And I thought a lot of the time that was sleeping with boys, and that just hammered down on my self-esteem. Then obviously the unfortunate cases of when there was no consent at all in a few of those situations. 

Before I knew it, I was 21 and I had chronic pancreatitis and gastroenteritis, quite extremely from eating disorders. My skin was literally rotting off me from the fact that I wasn't nourishing my body or my mind either. To my mind I was completely gone, I was a shell of a human being, a shell of me. In fact, I didn't exist in my head anymore, so much so that I actually thought a demon had taken up residence in my head. That's how bad the psychosis got really when I was drinking and abusing drugs. I basically took my fist and slammed it into my head as many times as I could to the point where I fractured my skull, because you do smart things like that when you're off your head on various bits and bobs. 

But thankfully, I was given the gift of sobriety. I'd clinically died twice and I'd been brought to life by the same person, my best friend at the time, through resuscitation. I got to do a detox and once I detoxed, I subsequently went into rehab and that was on 2 February 2016 and I was 21 years old. I think from that moment, I'd like to say things changed instantly but they didn't. I mean, throughout my recovery - which is now five years and a few months of sobriety and clean time, three years of not abusing eating disorders - I've not self-harmed and I actually care about myself now. But there have been challenges along the way which include my degrees, which include trying to find myself. Finally for the first time in the 20 odd years I've been on this planet, I've just been able to take those steps now. 

I ended up in abusive relationships, one in particular where I had a child. I was in my second year of my undergraduate degree and I have now got a little girl. But I did have to face the second half of my second and third year of my Biomedical Science undergraduate degree with a little girl, on my own. Thankfully I had my mum come down and stay with me for the first four months, as they're back home in Scotland and I'm just down here on my own. Of course, that brings about challenges because kids are really hard to look after, and when you're that kind of person who finds it hard to look after yourself, looking after something else is really difficult. But you manage because you have become this parent figure that has to look after another human, and that even gave me a little bit more of a kick up the back side to really push forward in pursuing my degree. Because I knew it wasn't just for me anymore, it was for me and my little girl.

Thankfully, the majority of my third year went without glitch and I was able to get rid of the domestic violence relationship. And when reaching the end of that undergraduate degree, I knew that without a doubt – in fact I'd pestered every person on my degree pretty much to get as much information as I could about the Physician Associate masters. I pestered the staff on the course and the program lead to make sure that they knew who I was, because I knew that's what I wanted to do. Finally, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was worth more than I ever thought I was, and was comfortable in being myself. And I think that kind of self-awareness, especially from a mental health perspective, going into a post-graduate degree, because it is tough, is really important. Not saying that everyone has to be a superhero at reading their own thoughts and being aware of themselves at all times, but having that self-assurance to say, “Actually, I need a little bit more help” and to be absolutely okay with that. The supervisors and everyone will be there to help you. That's what UWE does, it's a helping hand in a time of need, and I've experienced help throughout my undergrad and my post grad thus far. 

If I could put every single little thing that I love about learning into a degree, that is this master's degree that I'm doing. Not only is it giving me the opportunity to learn more in an academic sense, but from so many perspectives, I'm learning about how other people work. It's about getting that kind of self-awareness. Knowing about yourself is one thing, but being able to be there and be a helping hand for someone else, that is a gift that I never thought I'd be able to do. I always wanted to be there - I wanted to be there for myself, but you know, I didn't have the strength at the time. But to be there for someone else in their time of need, when they're at their low point, maybe they've just been diagnosed with cancer, or something as simple as they've got eczema and they need to get some cream to sort it out. You know, all these little things do affect people in various different ways, and being able to be there as that number one person and help that patient in that time, you can't get any better really.

The coursework is tough. The learning is tough. But the outcome and the goal at the end and reaching that goal is what matters the most. And I think that's the same for the majority of master's degrees and in fact any degree. It doesn't matter what level you study at, it's tedious and there are times when you have little breakdowns. There are times when you need to cry and there's some times when you just want to put on Netflix and ignore life entirely. But once you get started on a project, you really get into it and it's the same with this degree. I've loved the support that I've received from the staff on the course. We've got some absolutely wonderful Physician Associates. When you're on a postgraduate course, in most instances the class size is a lot smaller and you build relationships that run much deeper. You can rely upon absolutely every single person in the course to be there in your time of need, because we're all experiencing the exact same pain and we're doing the exact same exams and we're doing the exact same course work. But we're a smaller cohort and having that WhatsApp group or that Instagram group of people who are all like-minded and all absolutely love doing this specific thing is so important when it comes to battling any form of mental health difficulties that you might be going through at the time. 

Completing this degree is something - I dream about it a lot actually, and I sort of see like big crowds and fireworks and it's all going to be amazing. And I know that if I translate that down, it's because I am so excited to even have a postgraduate degree under my belt. I've been lucky enough to have been given a sponsorship placement, whereby in first year there's potentially a couple of GP practices or maybe even a hospital, that will come to UWE and say, “We want four, five, six, seven of your PA students to work with us when they graduate.” And then I interviewed for one in Taunton at Musgrove Hospital and they are taking me on which is incredible. And it also means very kindly that it's going to take some money off my second year funds which is working out really well for me. Because it gives me that little bit more financial security when it comes to paying for child care. 

Having that ability to know that ahead of you, there are great things to come and progression for the role itself, then I mean - if health care is up anyone's street and they want to be that person directly helping the patient, then Physician Associate as a postgrad is 100% for you. I've been given so much autonomy in what I do already, even on the first few weeks of my placement, but knowing what I'll be doing in clinic, either in a GP or at Musgrove, it's just going to be incredible. 

That scared little girl who would stick a big fake fat smile on her face, and just pretend that everything was perfect and rainbows and unicorns, and inside it was dark and bleak and just painful, has now turned into something that I freaking love and celebrate on a daily basis. Is that egotistical? Hell no, and if anyone thinks it is then maybe you need to give yourself a little bit more love, because celebrating yourself should be something you do every single day. No matter what happens, no matter what your journey is, you can be your best self, so long as you stick to being you and promise yourself that you're never going to give up on your dream, because if I can do it, you can do it too.