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My summer at the MS Trust: learning from people with MS

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MS. Multiple sclerosis. A chronic neurological condition characterised by damage to the myelin sheath of nerves which leads to a variety of symptoms. May affect vision, balance, movement and many more things”.


Nicholas Burstow, summer internAs a medical student just finishing my second year, this was all I knew about MS before my summer holiday began.

The long summer holidays of student life can be a blessing and a curse – the first few weeks may be heaven, but boredom is likely to ensue if the student has nothing to do. Fortunately my University runs a scheme which allows students to work for a charity for four weeks over the summer; the charity I chose to help was the MS Trust.

The aim of my internship was to carry out a literature search looking into the management of MS. The results I found would be used in the production of a ‘toolkit’ for any health professionals working with people with MS. Through reading more journal articles than I dare count, I learnt an awful lot more about MS than I had envisaged. But the real learning came away from the computer screen.

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit therapy centres in Letchworth and in Norwich for people living with MS. Reading about the condition and how it can affect people’s lives is one thing, but seeing it in front of your eyes is a completely different matter. I confess I found it difficult to see people struggling to walk, wheelchair bound, and in the case of one person I visited, even house bound. But through all this I found myself amazed at the resilience and positivity I saw.

As a medical student I spend a lot of my time thinking about the role of doctors in patient care, but so far I have neglected the roles of other professionals. This internship has made me realise that other allied health professionals – nurses, physios and occupational therapists to name but a few – are so important in patient care; especially for a long term condition like MS.

I have also learnt that a medical condition is much more than just pathology; it’s not solely the disease that needs treating, but the patient as well. It is easy to pick up the prescription pad and treat a symptom, but it’s just as important to think about how the disease affects everyday life. What good is treating spasticity with baclofen if the patient cannot leave their house in a wheelchair because there are no ramps?

I hope medical students appreciate that we as future doctors will not be the only ones involved in patient care. Nurses, physiotherapists, allied health professionals; we are all cogs in the same machine; one that should be driving for a better patient quality of life. And last but by certainly no means least is the patient. The patient is not just an MRI scan or a blood test result, they are a person, with worries, anxieties and hopes. The patient could be someone’s child, someone’s brother or sister, or someone’s parent, but this sadly is all too easy to forget.

Patients should realise that they are vital teachers for future doctors. We can all learn from lectures and textbooks, but you are the ones that make it all real – that tell us all the weird and wonderful side effects of a drug, or the social implications a condition can have. The doctor-patient relationship should not be a one-way street, but a road, albeit with many twists and turns, that we all travel together.

I would like to thank the MS Trust for letting me spend four weeks with them. Thank you also to Ben and Wendy, two wonderful physiotherapists, who taught me a lot about MS and make such a positive difference to people affected by the condition. Finally I would like to thank the people living with MS who spoke to me while I was on my placement. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me, helping me appreciate the huge implications any long term health condition can have on a person’s life. I hope to continue to learn from all the patients I meet during the next few years at university and beyond.

Nicholas Burstow

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