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Is taking a gap year worth it? My Gap Year story

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

March 2016: 4 rejections received.

March 2020: 3rd year medical student at King’s College London.

During my first application cycle for Medicine, I made a lot of mistakes without realising them:

  • I didn't research the structure of interviews nor did I practice enough questions.

  • I didn't prepare enough for the medical school admissions tests.

  • I wasn't strategic: I applied to UCL, Oxford, Imperial and Keele. I ended up doing better in the UCAT and my poor BMAT score meant that Oxford and Imperial declined my application outright.

After receiving 4 rejections from my chosen universities to study Medicine, admittedly I felt defeated. But as A-level exams drew closer, I knew I had to redirect my focus towards achieving the grades I wanted because I did not want to have the added pressure of retaking my exams.

Deciding to take a gap year was not an impulsive decision nor was it one that I entered into lightly and making that decision earlier on in the process allowed me to plan out my year effectively. I chose to take a gap year as opposed to taking up another degree (such as Biomedical Science) because I did not want to have to fund the tuition fees myself, which many postgraduates have to.

My main aims for my gap year were:

  • To secure a place at medical school, of course. I wanted to gain more clinical experience as I felt that this is what I lacked in Year 12-13 and did not reflect on enough to support my application.

  • To become more independent. I wanted to learn how to drive, get a job and earn my own money (so I knew how to manage my finances in university).

  • To grow professionally and personally

  • To travel and experience new things

After results day (I achieved AAAA in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths), I found myself starting my first day at my new job as a healthcare assistant at an NHS hospital in October. As the keen new employee, I was excited to experience healthcare from a different perspective: as one of the staff as opposed to being on the outside looking in as a work experience student. My ward – a combination of Rheumatology, Elderly Medicine and Infectious Diseases – depicted the typical chaotic, busy NHS hospital ward. It accommodated 21 patients at any one time and very rarely did we have empty beds. Cardiac arrests, sudden deaths and patients with distressing and uncomfortable conditions became part of my everyday working life. However, above all else, what brought me into work for my 12.5-hour long days and night shifts were the patients. The gratitude I was shown for the little things I did for them confirmed within me that working in healthcare was going to give me the personal fulfilment and lifetime satisfaction I wanted for myself. I was the youngest employee to be awarded the 'Make a Difference' Award - this was a staff recognition scheme that a patient would nominate a member of staff for. It rewards the hard work, dedication and achievements of those individuals that go out of their way to exceed patients' expectations. A chat with a patient; helping them to brush their teeth in the morning; offering a cup of tea and even the tasks that made up my job role such as toileting and washing were some of the moments where I realised I was making a change, contributing to improving the quality of life of each patient I came across, however small that may have been in the grand scheme of things.

Needless to say, working at a hospital was far from easy. Surrounded by sick people and anxious relatives for majority of your day has a toll on both your physical and mental health. I would listen to nurses tell me how stressed and tired they were; junior doctors who’d been working up to four 16-hour shifts in a row that they’d forgotten what a good night’s sleep felt like and student nurses doubting if this was really the career that they'd set out to pursue... The NHS is undeniably understaffed and overworked – a deadly combination that is slowly but surely destroying morale and not giving healthcare professionals the chance to be the compassionate, kind human beings we are (which is ultimately why all of us decided to enter the healthcare profession). Sitting down and having a chat with a patient is a luxury before somebody else needs you. It made me reflect on how my role would change when I graduated from medical school in years to come. What could I do to make a positive contribution to the NHS? What could be done to make it more viable? How can it continue to live up to its core principles: that it meets the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery and that it be based on clinical need not ability to pay?

These questions along with always having wanted to travel made me wonder what healthcare was like abroad and so, I spent my annual leave in the Dominican Republic with the Gap Medics (now called Global Pre Meds) programme. As opposed to my healthcare assistant role which was ward-based care, the Gap Medics programme allowed me to experience the more surgical side of things. I was allowed to scrub in and observe procedures like C-sections, hysterectomies and even cosmetic procedures like abdominoplasties (tummy tucks). I appreciated the dexterity and concentration surgeons had to have in the operating room as well as the long-term care that takes place off of the operation table. I could barely stand up for a 4-hour tummy tuck procedure, but it was light work for them!

During my 3-week stay I saw private, public and community healthcare in action and how that differed from the UK 4000 miles away. Private healthcare was where I witnessed most surgeries and it was of a pristine standard – hence why it was only provided if you could afford it, something we have tried to avoid in the UK. Public hospitals lacked the standard of hygiene and infection control we take so seriously in the UK and the common denominators remained: the public hospitals were poorly funded and understaffed.

Community healthcare was an entirely different experience and took place in Bateys (sugar worker towns). Here, most of the residents were Haitian and had travelled to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane for a living. They lived in communities with poor hygiene and sanitation, often hours away from hospitals since sugar cane grows in rural areas. We would set up clinics (much like our local GP surgeries in the UK) and hold consultations with the doctor, prescribing and supplying medications to those who needed them. It was eye-opening and my team saw around 150 patients in a day’s work.

As well as my healthcare work experience, every Thursday evening I would visit the local orphanage Orfanato Niños de Cristo and teach the children English. The orphanage welcomed children from the Dominican Republic and Haiti who had been abandoned and/or abused or who have lived in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Because government funds are extremely limited in the Dominican Republic, the orphanage is one of the few ways that these children have a better chance at life. However, schemes are now taking more factors into consideration such as the trauma and impact on a child's mental health when short-term volunteers attend orphanages to take part in such activities. Regrettably, this is not something I considered when I went on the programme but is certainly something I have educated myself on now. Unless you are going to be in the child's life long-term, it is not appropriate to volunteer at an orphanage. 'Voluntourism' is becoming an increasingly talked about topic and a worrying global phenomenon. Please research the programmes that you hope to take part in - I will have a blog post coming soon about what to consider before volunteering abroad.

However, I made lifelong friends from all over the world during the programme who hope to work in healthcare whether that be as doctors, nurses, midwives or community providers. We got involved in a range of fun activities such as snorkelling, boat trips to the island of Saona, horse riding and quad biking. I will never forget my once-in-a-lifetime experience there.

Apart from missing the Dominican Republic so much, coming back to work made me appreciate the NHS and I was proud that I got to live in the only country in the world that had a healthcare service like it. Throughout the rest of my gap year I worked, travelled (some of the places being Rome, Spain, Morocco and Paris) and even passed my driving test and bought my first car! All of these experiences changed me as a person – I felt as though I’d accomplished and grown so much. Most importantly, I was invited to interview at all 4 of my medical school choices and as you can see, I had a lot more to talk about! I transitioned from an uninformed, nervous sixth form student who thought she wanted to study medicine to an adult who had a much deeper understanding about the degree who knew she wanted to study medicine. I secured offers from 3 out of 4 of my medical schools and I have thoroughly enjoyed my 3 years at King’s College London so far.

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