Managing Chronic Illness in Healthcare Science

About Me

Hello, my name is Hannah! I am a first year STP student on the Genomic Counselling programme, but I have almost ten years of experience in healthcare science. This includes over seven years of NHS service, predominantly as a Biomedical Scientist in Immunology.

I am a passionate advocate for mental health and practice as a Mental Health First Aider, combined with being a former Samaritans Call Volunteer and student of counselling qualifications. Whilst I gained invaluable scientific skills as an NHS Scientist, the role didn’t satisfy my desire to interact with and support patients more directly. I was familiar with the STP due to training Biochemistry students on their immunology rotations, and after much soul searching, I decided to commence my own STP journey. I felt that Genomic Counselling could bridge my interest in counselling skills with my scientific background and I was determined to gain the care experience required for my application. I managed to train as a Hospice Care Volunteer and offer emotional support as a Samaritan, alongside my Biomedical Science NHS service work.

My Diagnosis

My interest in mental health undoubtedly stems from managing depression for much of my adulthood. In 2019, I suffered my worst depressive episode after some challenging life experiences. Then enters 2020 and, you guessed it, the pandemic strikes. I developed symptoms of COVID soon after and sadly lost a close relative to the virus. This was arguably difficult enough whilst battling depression, but my health continued to deteriorate afterwards.

Before the pandemic, I was a black belt martial artist and completed the London to Brighton Cycle Ride three years in a row. Fitness was not only a passion, but my main coping mechanism to keep the black dog at bay. Unexpectedly, exercise was no longer enjoyable with overbearing fatigue and bodily pain in the subsequent days. I would lay in bed after an ordinary workday feeling like I had run a marathon, with my joints feeling inflamed and burning. My cognitive function became sluggish, and I started to doubt my scientific abilities. I became trapped in an awful cycle of pain contributing to my worsening mental state. After struggling to access NHS support, I turned to private healthcare and saw a Rheumatologist who diagnosed fibromyalgia and discussed myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Retrospectively, I would not have been surprised if I had developed a form of long COVID.

My highly physical laboratory job suddenly felt impossible; I could no longer even stand up in my laboratory’s morning meeting without muscle and joint pain. The quality of my work was severely impacted and I took prolonged periods of sick leave, but the guilt of doing so further lowered my mood. I postponed my volunteering experiences and my dream of training as a Genetic Counsellor felt unbelievably out of reach. The loss of identity I experienced due to my illness was substantial, but I have learnt that it is possible to achieve a place on the STP despite a physical or mental illness. The road felt longer and required personal prioritisation strategies, with a similar high dosage of both self-compassion and resilience. However, I do wish to caveat that every individual’s health odyssey is unique, with differing severities and personal circumstances, that may place even more obstacles towards a healthcare science career than mine!

Managing Chronic Illness in Healthcare Science

Below are some reflections on what helped me to navigate my NHS healthcare science career during this turbulent time:

  • Workplace support – having a supportive NHS manager who was compassionate, evidently cared about my wellbeing, and is an overall true inspiration for me in her management style. I am aware that this managerial relationship isn’t a guarantee for everyone, but I would advise those suffering with their health to talk to any trusted colleague with suitable qualifications, such as a Mental Health First Aider.
  • Prioritisation – my exercise routine and volunteering had to be suspended or reduced at certain points in my recovery. I felt that I had to prioritise my paid occupation in my post-illness life. Unfortunately, even this impacted my social life, and I spent many weekends unable to leave my bed.
  • Sick leave – I sat with my guilt and took sick leave when my manager and doctor advised it. I had to change my attitude, remind myself that I wasn’t exploiting the system, and I no longer view it as a personal failure. I am incredibly grateful for the supportive NHS sickness policies and occupational sick pay; I have friends who do not get paid at all when sick!
  • Reassess your working pattern and make reasonable adjustments – mornings were problematic in terms of my brain fog and fatigue, and I struggled to start work on time. My manager agreed that I could work a later shift to compensate for this. Eventually, I also made the difficult decision to reduce my full time NHS role to a part-time, four-day working week. The financial repercussions as a single homeowner were a huge challenge, but having a mid-week recovery day eventually enabled me to commit to volunteering again.
  • Personal Support – my depression meant that I wasn’t necessarily in the best mindset throughout much of this journey. However, with the support of my family, friends, and short periods of therapy, I have accepted the limitations of my illness and shifted my focus onto the activities that I can do. In my supportive roles, I also became very conscious of the positive impacts that pets can have on wellbeing, and this is very true when I consider the happiness given by my little sausage dog in that time!
  • Hobbies – being forced to stop exercising was a huge blow for me, but it left me with time to dedicate to my other hobbies. I have always loved to read, but I predict that I have read more books than ever the past few years and it has provided true escapism. Sustaining a reading practice helped to remind me that I hadn’t lost everything, and that I was still ‘me’.
  • Reflection – wellness and resilience are discussed a lot in terms of health in the workplace, but I often reflect on how wellness isn’t always enough to prevent illness. I was incredibly fit, ate a healthy diet, and nurtured supportive relationships; I still suffered awfully with my mental health and developed fibromyalgia. I certainly advocate practising personal wellness measures for maintaining a healthy body and mind, but I wonder if this mindset can contribute to an individual’s guilt and blame for their illness, particularly regarding their mental health.

My STP Experience

Whilst these adjustments helped me to function as a Biomedical Scientist, I knew that I wanted a career change and accepted that my laboratory job was no longer truly compatible with my health or my finances. I managed to commit to volunteering on my better weeks, and after two consecutive attempts, I gained my place on the STP in 2022 . I appreciate the difficulties in changing professions as a mature student, and I am incredibly grateful that I achieved this.

I will admit that managing my chronic illness on the STP was challenging in the first couple of months. The STP requires an upheaval of life if you need to relocate, and there is a commitment for most students to travel to university very soon after your start date. I ended up driving back and forth to Manchester three weeks in a row (train strikes!), which was awful for my joints and fatigue. In hindsight, I wish that I had known the university dates weeks in advance to plan this better. I would also recommend describing your illness to your new Manager and Training Officer because they provided a lot of support to me during this time, but only if you feel comfortable in doing so.

Thankfully, I am now in much better mental and physical health! I mainly attribute this to having a sedentary vocation and no longer running around a laboratory all day. It was after that initial university block that I started to notice a positive difference in my health: I had more energy and less pain in the evenings, felt more engaged in my work, and was very reassured with the flexibility to work at home if I have an illness flare up. Additionally, earning a full-time wage again has significantly reduced my financial pressures. I feel happy in my new STP role and enjoy being back in academic education, as well as being inspired by all my patient interactions and every novel clinical experience – I even went into theatre and watched bowel surgery the other day! Recently, I have walked my dog without experiencing pain, and I wish to attempt some gentle cycling now that Spring is here. Finding a sustainable balance is hard, especially when it can change week-by-week, but I now feel comfortable stepping back when required.

I hope that my story might inspire prospective STP applicants who suffer with a mental or physical illness. Whilst they are a part of my life, they do not define me, and I believe that they make me more empathic and compassionate to patients. This experience has given me an invaluable insight into the struggles of pain management, a prolonged diagnosis, and living with invisible illnesses and the coinciding prejudices. This has only enhanced my clinical practice and perspective – maybe it could enhance yours too.

Author: Hannah (Genomic Counselling)

Useful Links

Find out more about ME here:

The Samaritans are available for emotional support 24 hours a day,
365 days of the year:
Call 116 123 for free, or visit

MIND is a mental health charity:

Author: Hannah

STP Genomic Counselling

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