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'I almost died – but now I'm a doctor'

HIGH PRAISE: Dr Rochelle Smith receiving her prize for Triple Honours from the Dean of the Faculty at The University of the West Indies, Dr Tomlin Paul

MEDICAL STUDENT who was left in a coma after a potentially fatal viral infection has graduated as one of the top students in her year, also winning a prestigious prize for achievements.

Rochelle Smith’s dream of becoming a doctor nearly ended after she was struck down with acute encephalitis, a viral infection in the brain which left her in a coma for two and a half weeks and in hospital for a further two months.

Rochelle, from Epsom in Surrey, was working towards a degree in medicine at The University of the West Indies (UWI) after choosing to study in the Caribbean so she could be closer to her grandparents who live in Jamaica.

Following her illness the talented student had to learn how to walk, speak and read again. But she was determined to realise her dream of becoming a doctor and has recently graduated.

AWARD: Rochelle receiving the prize for Best All-Round Academic Performance and Good Citizenship from a representative of National Commercial Bank of Jamaica

After sitting her finals she was awarded last month with a special prize from The UWI for being one of the four best performers in the final exam.

She told The Voice: “I see myself as a regular person but other people looking at me may find strength through, for example, how I dealt with my illness.

“The more experiences we share, the more we realise there are others going through the same thing.”

Rochelle, who was in the third year of a five-year degree and hailed as one of The UWI’s brightest students after appearing on the Dean’s List, was working on a hospital ward when she suddenly collapsed in 2016.

After falling into a coma doctors were unsure if she was going to survive.

But she pulled through and came out of the coma. According to statistics, only 22 per cent of people affected by the condition make a full recovery.

However, Rochelle was determined to get back on track and qualify as a doctor. Speaking about the illness that left her in a coma, Rochelle told The Voice: “I just remember it being a normal day. I’d just taken off my glasses and was walking towards the hospital ward when I could feel myself fainting. I told my colleagues that I was going to faint and then could feel myself sliding down the wall in slow motion. People later told me that I was having conversations with them but I don’t remember having them.

“The whole experience was a test of faith for my entire family. They were on their knees praying every single day because they really had no idea what the cause of the illness was and I think that’s what made it so difficult for everyone around me, everybody was frantically searching for an answer.”

Before the illness, Rochelle was one of the university’s top medical students and she was determined to get back on track and return to her studies, motivated by the fact that so few people hit by the condition make a full recovery.

She said: “I can’t say that I came out of it and I was happy to be alive because it affected me quite hard.

“I went from being an independent person to being completely reliant on other people.

“But I thought to myself ‘if I’ve been given this second chance at life, there’s no way I can come back and just be average. I have to continue to try and push to do better for myself, not to please other people or make other people happy.” Given that 22 per cent of people survive this illness I couldn’t say to myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to live an ordinary life’. I feel like it’s part of my purpose to be able to do something more.”

PROUD: The talented student with her results envelope and one of the prizes she received

Rochelle continued: “Before this happened my academic achievements were what everyone knew me for. I was in the Dean’s List, I was one of the top students and when I came back to school, I think I was very anxious to be that person again that everybody knew. For my parents it was tough letting me go back to Jamaica after almost losing me but they also gave me the belief that I could go back and do great things.”

However, the road to recovery took nine months and was at times challenging. The viral infection had left Rochelle unable to see, walk or talk properly.

Rochelle, a keen rugby player who represented England and Jamaica, had to give this up while she worked towards getting back to full health.

“On some days I had to say to myself, ‘Yes, you’re feeling sad today but you need to bring yourself out if it’. When you’re going through something like this, you need to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to feel what you feel. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“Being a very independent person that was one of the most difficult things for me. I learned in that most vulnerable state that I was in it was okay to ask for help.”

Eventually returning to school, it was also initially tough. Her rehabilitation involved learning to recognise words again by reading children’s books. She recalls: “My mum had wanted me to transfer back to the UK to complete my degree but I said I wanted to stay and finish what I’d started.

“When I went back I was behind so I had to enter the class that was a year below, which was very difficult because I had to watch my friends and my classmates all move on.

“I wasn’t jealous of them but I was sad because these are the people that I’d shared experiences with. The whole medical school was shocked to learn about what had happened to me but my tutors were very good in helping me.

“When I told people I needed assistance in terms of regaining my memory and recall, they did a lot to facilitate my recovery especially in the early part of my recovery. After my fourth year I felt that I had a better handle and could do more things on my own.

POSITIVE: Rochelle with the other three students who came in the top four for the Medicine and Therapeutics examinations

“The cognitive recall took six months so I had to go all the way back to reading children’s books — not really learning words, but they helped me to recognise things again.

“One thing that was also hard was being able to concentrate. After you’ve had any major brain surgery you can be affected by something called neuro fatigue. You can look fine on the outside but you’re struggling to concentrate. When I came out of hospital, everyone said ‘oh, just relax’, but I couldn’t concentrate for more than five minutes and afterwards I’d feel exhausted.”

However, Rochelle persisted and her efforts paid off.

She retained her grade point average, returned to the Dean’s List and was among the top four performing students in her MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) degree, winning The UWI’s Hon. John Hall Prize for Medicine & Therapeutics for being one of the four best performers in the final exam.

She also won a prize for achieving the best all round academic performance and for demonstrating good citizenship. Her full graduation will take place this November.

For Rochelle, her success marks the culmination of a life-changing personal journey. “The results provided a real sense of satisfaction for me,” she said. “There’s a quote by Maya Angelou which talks about the fact that when you shine brightly you give others permission to do so as well.

“That quote is really important to me because it says that no matter what your struggle is or how hard you think your life is, you should always push and strive to be the best of yourself because you never know who you’re inspiring.”

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