Statistics show that it is but Elizabeth, a SWAP Medical student now studying at the University of Aberdeen, proves it doesn’t have to be. Her story, below, is one of determination, resilience and perseverance to achieve her dream, despite the many barriers she faced. 


''As a mature, disabled medical student, my journey has been anything but conventional. Studying medicine had been my vocation from an early age, however I was forced to leave school at the age of 15 due to ill health and disability. Born into a family with no academic background, where university was an unfamiliar concept and education not encouraged, I found myself with no qualifications and what seemed to be an impossible dream.
Despite facing significant challenges - disability, recurrent illness, escaping a violent situation resulting in homelessness, and the responsibilities of being a single parent, I refused to let go of that dream. I channelled my energy into working and volunteering in helping professions including being a Samaritans listener and a panel member for Children’s Hearings Scotland, making difficult legal decisions for children’s welfare and protection.
During his teenage years my son faced complex critical illness, requiring life support. Although each obstacle seemed insurmountable, these experiences shaped my resilience and fuelled my determination to return to formal education. After my son had been critically unwell, I studied national 5 qualifications at my local college, and enrolled on a psychology course with the Open University. The flexibility of distance learning enabled me to develop confidence in my ability to study, however the pivotal moment in my journey was receiving a more suitable powered wheelchair, leading to greater independence. I dared to wonder whether my dream of studying medicine might just be achievable.
I remember well my first, very nervous phone call with Lesley Dunbar, to enquire about the possibility of applying to SWAP East Access to Medical Studies. I expected scepticism and to be told that it was ridiculous that someone such as me would even consider medicine … instead, I found unwavering encouragement and support and felt motivated to apply. I sat the UCAT exam and surprised by my high score, began SWAP access to medicine still unsure of my abilities. It is an intense course, studying up to level 8 in subjects such as maths, chemistry, and biology and requiring a pass mark of over 80% in every subject - all whilst applying to medical schools!
Having been out of education for so long, I was unsure if I knew how to study – whether I was doing it ‘right’ and yet I was passing every exam, so the tutors would laugh and say, “Keep doing whatever you’re doing!” That is a feeling I still have now, studying medicine – I don’t look like my peers, and I don’t study like them. But I am passing exams (with distinctions) so really, if you are engaging with the content, it doesn’t matter which way works for you.  As mature students we have different lives and responsibilities, and our study methods and settings may not be conventional. The cliched 12hrs in the library may well more realistically be listening to podcasts whilst travelling, revising whilst waiting for appointments, and embracing studying as an integral part of life – a lot can be learned, even just in short chunks.
Through studying with SWAP I was fortunate enough to have a choice of medical school offers and began my studies with Aberdeen medical school in 2021. Being the first wheelchair-user to be accepted was quite daunting and I was concerned that I would be seen as a bother, or not worthy of my place as a medical student. However, the staff at Aberdeen soon allayed all those fears and could not have been more supportive. The world is not accessible, and I don’t expect medicine to be any different, but I am in a place where people are interested in my experience - not only for me, but to encourage and welcome future disabled students to apply. Recognising the importance of accessibility and inclusivity in education and the medical field, Aberdeen medical school has developed a student EDI committee, where I have the role as rep for disabilities, neurodiversity, and supporting students.
When exploring the possibility of studying medicine, I looked for other disabled doctors and medical students and I am motivated to hopefully inspire other students who are mature, disabled, or from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply and pursue their dream. You cannot be what you cannot see, and so often we are told that university, or medicine, is an impossible dream and not for the likes of us - whether by teachers, or those around us. My own mother told me that patients wouldn’t trust a doctor in a wheelchair. Do not let other people’s limited imaginations limit your dreams.
Studying such intense courses as a mature student does have its challenges. As well as financial considerations, with responsibilities for children and older family members, it is difficult to not feel pulled in different directions and there is not the time or headspace to devote purely to studying without distraction. My studying journey has sadly involved personal tragedies, with close relatives and friends dying in difficult circumstances. I have been determined to persevere and focus on my studies throughout these, often with studying providing balance, structure, and peace amidst chaos.
With additional concerns about the impact of my disability and managing fluctuating energy levels I found the philosophy, “working smarter, not harder” useful in my approach. Having a clearly defined goal for each study session and utilising various resources, such as podcasts, webinars, YouTube tutorials, and question banks, as well as lecture materials allows understanding of a topic from various angles. I remember a wonderful surgeon advise that I should seek to understand, rather than remember facts, and a lecturer in first year advising that we never go past a concept we don’t understand without looking it up. SWAP access to medical studies has also created a solid foundation of knowledge that I have frequently referred to during my medical studies, and certainly helped to gain confidence and distinctions in my exams.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities, friendships, and support that SWAP has provided for me, proving that education is not just a privilege for the few, but a beacon of hope amidst the darkness, especially for those from underrepresented backgrounds. Some of the highlights of my medical school experience have included writing a reflection of gratitude for families of donors to the anatomy department, which is now incorporated into the annual memorial service, being co-author of a research paper published in the BMJ Oncology, and being completely overwhelmed to receive an award for outstanding professionalism.
To anyone considering a SWAP access programme and returning to study as a mature student, I would encourage you to believe in yourself and your abilities. It is never too late to follow your dreams – as I begin my 4th year of medical school my dream of becoming a doctor is no longer just a dream, it is within reach. The path to medicine is never easy but you have likely survived bigger challenges than studying and your confidence will develop with experience. With support, opportunity, perseverance, and determination, the impossible becomes possible.
And it all began with that first, nervous phone call.''
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