Paramedic Science’s Tom hasn’t let COVID or MS stand in his way

Date 4.01.2021

Remarkable, humble and always remaining patient-focused is how one paramedic student describes another, who took on studying during the pandemic while managing a serious health condition.

Tom Rothwell – from Derbyshire and pictured below, second left of the back row – started the University of Northampton’s popular Foundation course in Paramedic Science in November 2018 after working in what, on the surface, seems a very different career.

He explains: “In a previous life I was an outdoor sports instructor and sports centre manager, roles that actually aren’t a million miles from what I was interested in studying.

“Of course, working at a sports centre isn’t exactly the same, but I had skills I thought would help me progress to a healthcare career. I enjoyed working in a public facing role and integrating with people and I volunteered with the Peak District mountain rescue service – in a non-medical role – and also enjoyed rock climbing, so I was quite used to being outdoors in the rain! Also, and this might sound corny, but I really enjoy helping people.”

Tom Rothwell mountain

Man of action: Tom Rothwell during a stint of mountain climbing.

A professional jump for some, but Tom easily settled in to the university life, comfortably handling class work, placements with East Midlands Ambulance Service and making friends with his peers.

Those peers include Tim Burrows – front row in the group photo – who picks up the story: “I’ve known Tom for a while now and my initial impression when I first met him was what most people will think: outdoorsy, great guy. But when you get to know him a bit more, you’ll see very quickly that doesn’t do him justice.

“Humble doesn’t cover who he is or how he has coped what what’s happened since starting the course. He has been a student representative at the University – he supported me when I first started and other students and even his own Mum when she was ill. That’s what made his diagnosis even more shocking.”

Just months in to his course, Tom received a body blow after an innocuous health complaint: “I had my first placement in January 2019 and loved being ‘on call’ with seasoned paramedics – it was fantastic!

“The rest of the year followed suit with a second placement and I was about to start my third in April when I started to feel unwell; I felt dizzy and had vertigo. I had many GP appointments but nothing untoward was diagnosed – I was told it was just an ear infection. Then, things got worse.

“Most days I had real difficulty getting out of bed. Then on other days, I felt relatively OK and could walk with ease. My ‘yo-yoing’ health was hell and I had to take time off from the course.

“Typical, lazy university student you might think, but this really wasn’t me – I was a man of action who climbed mountains! Eventually, I had enough and went back to my GP where I saw a registrar who was convinced that I didn’t have an ear infection.

“They referred me to the Royal Derby Hospital for a medical assessment and I spent three days there. When I left, my world had changed: they diagnosed me as having relapsing, remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It was devastating. I didn’t really understand what it was and had no idea if the symptoms I had would resolve.”

MS is a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord causing a wide range of symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance. It’s a lifelong condition and the symptoms can be mild or severe and worsen with time. Life expectancy can be reduced.

Tom now settled into a radically different life marked by the need to take specific medication to control the symptoms of the condition. A side effect of these is that a person’s immune system is suppressed, and he missed several weeks of lectures.

Miraculously, as he explains, this and having to shield for most of this year due to the pandemic were to no academic avail: “Because of the MS, I had 15 weeks off during the first year of my degree which really put me behind. Thankfully I passed all of my exams, but I couldn’t have done that without the help of my peers.

“Then, for my second year, the pandemic hit and as a vulnerable person I had to shield. Most of the teaching went online so I kept up to speed and the support sessions with my Personal Academic Tutor were brilliant.”

Tom also had professional pick-me-ups from his fellow students including Tim, who adds: “Every university student brings with them their own challenges, whether staff or student but Tom really caught the curve ball life threw at him and chucked it back. The person he is, is why his story should be heard. He fights just as hard for his patients as he would for a friend or himself.

“Whether he is helping an elderly woman who has had a fall or supporting me when I first started the course, to be that adaptive – especially when you are training for a profession as fluid as ours – and dealing with your own health problems as well as being a student, that deserves to be celebrated. I’m a mature student and I thought that would be hard enough, but what Tom’s achieved is remarkable.”

Tom concludes his story with some good news: “I have been offered a job as a paramedic with East Midlands Ambulance Service and I am currently going through occupational health and pre-employment checks. I’m looking forward to starting with them, but at the moment I’m taking every day as it comes and hoping I can go out on placement this month and finish the course!

“I have really enjoyed my time at university, even with everything that has happened – these really have been exceptional months – but I want to recognise all of my academic cohort. All of the students have done amazingly well during very difficult times. They’ve pulled together to become the paramedics I know they will be.”