I once got fired from a job for spilling food on Rod Stewart. I was working as a waitress in a pub that he and Penny Lancaster used to go to all the time. I was really nervous and, as I was serving them bread rolls, I tipped the whole lot over Rod Stewart’s lap. He was covered in bread rolls. I wasn’t a very good waitress. The people I worked with there would be very surprised to hear that I’m a doctor now.
My mum’s got bipolar disorder and she would be sectioned a few months every year so we’d spend Christmas in the mental health unit. She’d be really high one minute and really low the next. I remember on one birthday I asked for a pet rabbit while my mum was on one of her highs and she came back with 12. It was the best birthday… but then my dad had to take them back.
Initially I did really well in school, I went to primary school and really enjoyed it. Growing up was fine, it was teenage years that weren’t that good.
I started missing a lot of secondary school to visit my mum. I guess I was stressed but didn’t really know it at the time so I just kept skipping school. I’d fake being sick so I didn’t have to go in, my mum wouldn’t be there, my dad wouldn’t be there, so I could do what I wanted.
By the time I was 14, I was missing a lot of school and started to feel that it was a waste of time. I started drinking daily, hanging out with older kids and my grades started going down because I wasn’t doing any coursework.
Half way through year 10 I left school completely and that’s when I started smoking weed. My mum was a really good parent when she was there but when she got sectioned it was different. My dad met another woman and moved to Yorkshire so he was back and forth. Me and my sister had the house to ourselves. She tried to look after me but she was partying as well. I think I just wanted someone to tell me off, no one ever told me off.
The weed made me really depressed. I remember I didn’t leave the house for a year when I was 16, I was just smoking every day. I was in my own little bubble, people would call me but I never spoke to them so I lost all of my friends. I thought Harlow was the problem so I decided to move out. My plan was to look for live-in jobs elsewhere and that’s how I ended up waitressing for Rod Stewart.
At 18 I thought about working as a carer. When I was younger I liked caring for mum when she was ill and I remember watching my mum caring for my uncle, who is mentally handicapped. I got a job in a care home and was there for two years. I did my NVQs, became senior carer and was in charge of all the medications. That’s when my confidence really grew. I really enjoyed it, I was always being praised because of the good work I was doing. I thought ‘ah, maybe I can do something with my life if I try’. I quite enjoyed doing the NVQs as well, I enjoyed learning when it was something that I wanted to learn.
I got a bit frustrated because I couldn’t go any further as a carer, so I applied to be a Healthcare Assistant at Harlow Hospital. I remember when I got the phone call telling me I got the job I cried for an hour, I was so excited. I was really happy to go there and that’s where things really started for me.
I started as a Healthcare Assistant when I was 20, I really enjoyed it and was doing really well. I started watching the nurses and thinking ‘maybe I could do that one day’. I started researching what I would need to do to become a nurse because I had no qualifications at the time apart from NVQs. I found a part-time Access to Nursing course at Enfield College. It was on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I was working 60 hours a week and commuting to Enfield to do the course.
I started learning about the cell and that’s what changed everything for me. I found it fascinating, looking at a tiny cell and learning what it does. I did really well on the course, I think I got the highest mark in the class and everyone was encouraging me to go on to study medicine.
I started watching the doctors at work and wondering whether I would be able to do that. One day I went into theatres and one of the surgeons let me sit in and watch him operate. It was fascinating watching him do what he did and I thought ‘I need to be doing this job.’
I said to him afterwards, I’d really like to be a doctor one day and he said ‘yeah, why not’. I did some research and found there were four Access to Medicine courses in the country. I was working on the elderly care ward at the time and I kept seeing people die with their regrets. I didn’t want to be there when I’m old thinking ‘what if?’
I did three interviews for the Access to Medicine course and got accepted to Norwich but they needed me to have done GCSEs in Maths and English. I studied the coursework for my GCSEs at home alongside working a 70-hour week. I also had to sit exams in a school in Cambridge, I was 21 and I had to sit them alongside the schoolchildren. I remember this boy saying before one ‘we need to do well now because we don’t want to end up like her and have to come back’.
I passed and moved my life to Norwich to start the Access to Medicine course. I completed that and applied for the Medicine course here at St George’s. I remember leaving the interview for it and thinking ‘there’s no way they’re going to accept me, that went really badly’.
Then I got a notification on UCAS saying that I’d got in – an unconditional offer. I didn’t believe it. I had no internet at the time so I had to go to the library to check it. I remember staring at the screen thinking it wasn’t real. I asked this random man next to me ‘What does this say? What does it mean?’ and he said ‘I think you’re going to study Medicine’.
I was really intimidated when I first arrived at St George’s, I kept thinking ‘All these people are so smart, I’m not meant to be here’. It was all really daunting, it felt like a dream. I thought I’ll just enjoy it while I’m here, try hard and see what happens.
I worked throughout university as a Healthcare Assistant - every Friday and Saturday night and during the holidays. I studied a lot on night shifts and on the underground, I think riding the central line is how I passed my exams.
There were so many times when I wanted to give up - when I wasn’t eating properly, when I was really stressed with exams and felt like I couldn’t cope any more – but then you’re back to square one. I always had that in the back of my head - if I give up now I’m left with nothing. Medicine was all that I wanted to do now. I’d fallen in love with it.
Graduation was massively satisfying but it still didn’t feel real. Even now I don’t feel proud of myself, it’s a really weird feeling. I still don’t feel like I’ve achieved much but, I guess I have.
When I was at university I never wanted to be a GP because it seemed really boring, I always wanted to go into emergency medicine. But because I’d been doing nights, weekends, 14-hour shifts since I was 18, I started to really want a work-life balance.
I did a GP placement in my second foundation year in Margate and really loved it. It takes three years after your foundation years to qualify as a GP so I’ve only got a year left and then I’ll have qualified. The ultimate aim is to be a GP part-time with the air ambulance along with A&E shifts so I’ll do emergency medicine as well. It’ll be lovely to have a normal life.
If I didn’t have the start in life I did, I don’t think I would have gone into medicine. I never wanted to be a doctor. Nobody in my family has even been to college before let alone university so if I’d had a normal life – gone to school, done my GCSEs – I don’t think I would have found medicine.
It was very daunting, it was really hard but you’ve just got to keep pushing yourself. If it’s something that you want then you’ve just got to fight for it. It was determination that got me through. Take each day as it comes, take each exam as it comes. You will hit hurdles but you have to get around them. I got there eventually. You’ve just got to keep pushing yourself.
It’s been a weird life but I definitely wouldn’t change any part of it. It’s made me who I am.
Joanne Barton is an alumna of St George’s, University of London who graduated from Medicine in 2015.