As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.
Chanelle Smith, a 22-year-old fifth year medical student, has been working in critical care wards during the pandemic.
Where have you been working during the pandemic?
I have been working in Royal United Hospital in Bath and I am currently working in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. I have been in the critical-care wards including the acute medical unit and the emergency department. I have also been in ward care observing bowel surgeries and taking histories from patients admitted to the Surgical Admissions Suite.
What has it been like working in the NHS?
It has been a surreal and humbling experience. The hospitals have been under a lot of pressure with the added strain of dealing with COVID patients as it has changed many aspects of hospital care. Donning and doffing of PPE equipment has to be done with every patient which has resulted in a less streamlined system so jobs can take twice as long. There has been a shortage of staff, with many having to self-isolate if they become sick, which compounds the issue – so it has definitely been a challenging time.
However, by all accounts, healthcare workers have responded exceedingly well. I’ve witnessed the whole multi-disciplinary team stepping up, doing what needs to be done without complaining, with a smile on their faces. However, I have also witnessed the tears, sadness and the shear exhaustion from their dedication to long hour shifts. They have the hardest jobs in the world at the best of times and through all of this, they have been providing the best possible care to incredibly sick patients. I’ve been humbled by both their professionalism and compassion and it has reminded me how lucky we are to have our public health care system. I’m reminded everyday of why I wanted to go into this profession and even in the midst of the pandemic I feel now more than ever inspired and humbled by this profession and really excited to join the NHS workforce.
What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? (at work or personally)
My greatest triumph during the pandemic has been my ability to reflect, have gratitude and appreciate what is important in life. At the start of the first lock-down we were thrown into unprecedented territory. There was so much uncertainty and anxiety as well as an abrupt sense of isolation as we were confined to our homes. As a medic with a hectic schedule, I often find it difficult to turn off and fall into the trap of the culturally ingrained mindset that we must always be busy. To have a period of stillness was somewhat of a culture shock! With life moving at a slower-pace, I found myself with a significant opportunity to reflect and grow. I realised how detrimental this mindset had been on my wellbeing.
Lockdown highlighted to me, my lack of interaction with friends and family. Being constantly distracted and always planning and thinking ahead meant I was never really present in the moment. Paradoxically, in a world where we must practice social distancing, I have found my relationships have been stronger than ever. Spending time with family made me feel grounded and so grateful that we were all safe and healthy. In general, I believe that I now express more gratitude for the little things and therefore have a more positive perspective on life.
What is it like being a woman in medicine?
I feel powerful and energised being a woman in this profession. I am grateful that there have been so many women before me that have paved the way so that I may have these kinds of opportunities. I believe that there is a lot more equality for women and I am so proud to see so many truly making their mark in the medical arena. But we must strive to do more. I believe that gender should not be a factor by which my clinical skills should come under question and as long as I stay confident in my abilities, I hope to continue to empower women and support each other to reach their full potential. Admittedly, there remains an under-representation of women in leadership positions due to an invisible ‘glass-ceiling’. I would love to see more women represented as leaders and I hope that one day I will be one of them.
Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?
There can be times where you feel undermined, especially when accompanied by male colleagues. Patients can sometimes prefer to speak to them or value their ideas over yours. I often have daily misconceptions of my role. Patients will often ask “Are you training to be a nurse?” or “How old are you?”. I wonder if my male counterparts are often asked the same questions. I will always dispel these initial impressions of me and correct people’s assumptions positively, but it disheartens me that these are still common events that I still have to endure on a daily basis.
This becomes a further challenge, not only because I am a woman, but also because I am a woman of colour. When your opinion is dismissed or you are not recognised as a doctor it makes me question myself and creates self-doubt. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is unsurprisingly more common among women in the medical profession and can lead to burnout. However, hopefully things will continue to change and I am optimistic that I will enter into the profession confident in my abilities and ready to stand my ground.
Which women have inspired you in your career?
My mum has been my biggest inspiration. She has been completely selfless in making sacrifices in her own life in order to allow both me and my brother to go out into the world and pursue our own dreams. I feel so grateful to have my biggest cheerleader supporting me every step of the way. Her strength, elegance, kindness, love, ambition, beauty and above all her incredible generosity is beyond anything I have witnessed. She taught me to dream big and always believe in myself. Anything is possible and achievable.
I also feel hugely inspired by Baroness Doreen Lawrence who has tirelessly campaigned for justice after the death of her son Stephen Lawrence, who was brutally murdered in an attack in 1993. This story hits particularly close to home as my mum was a friend of Stephen, who also had to come to terms with such a devastating loss. I can only imagine the emotional turmoil that a mother faces when struck by such a tragedy in such a senseless and violent way.
However, despite all the difficulties she faced, her act of great bravery and courage she showed by refusing to give up and keep fighting for justice and equality despite the odds is remarkable. She is the epitome of grace and tenacity, a wonderful role model to me and countless other women. Her successes have included carrying the Olympic Torch, founding the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, reforming the police service and an OBE award for services to the community, just to name a few. However, I imagine she would give them all up to have her son back. The mark she made on the world is something that I can only hope to emulate in my life and she is a pillar of strength that I will continue to look up to.
What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?
My main advice would be: work your behind off, believe in what you are doing, and go out there and change the damn world. I would tell myself to be bold and more importantly be yourself. Never let anyone discourage you or tell you can’t do something because you are more capable than you realise. Do not underestimate the impact of your voice, your perspective or your knowledge. You have the power to change the world!
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being unapologetically, authentically me. It has been a long journey to find inner peace, but I have finally realised that empowerment starts from within. I have often struggled with a sense of identity. My mum is Indian, my dad is Jamaican and I myself was born in South Africa. Having grown up in a very multicultural family, I have personally experienced the challenges of not always conforming to any established racial category. In addition to feeling like the odd one in a heavily populated Caucasian community, I often asked myself: Where do I belong?
For many years, I felt lost. All I wanted to do was feel accepted and would constantly seek validation from other people. I wanted to have straight hair, like the other girls at school who people perceived to be beautiful. I also had a curvy body shape which led to periods suffering with eating disorders as I did everything I could to distance myself from my own unique features.
I look back on those times with sadness but feel proud that I have come out the other side proud to be a woman of colour, proud of my mixed heritage and the vibrancy and culture that it brings. I believe I represent the 21st century and feel passionate about uniting people of all different colours, races and religions. All these things have made me a much more positive and fulfilled person and therefore I am proud to see the person I am becoming. I wish every woman would follow her dreams and not put society’s ideals before her own. Everyone deserves a shot at living the life they want, and I hope that we can all celebrate and embrace each other differences as I have learned to embrace my own!