2. The Long Road to RIAT – The Flying Scholarship.
Right so now you know my story, well at least the medical side of it. So let’s fast forward to New Year 2016. I was in a bad place mentally but not really admitting that even to myself. I had put my PhD on hold, I was a full time patient spending most of my time in hospital appointments and trying to get my head around what a progressive condition meant for me - terrified by how quickly the condition had progressed in just 2.5 years. I decided at new year my life needed to change and that I needed to take back control. You may have noticed from my story that I am somewhat of a type A personality, so not being in control of any part of my life was really starting to affect me. I don’t make resolutions at New Year as I think they fail – I put my business head on and I made a plan. I had a spreadsheet and SMART goals. One of those goals was that I was going to apply to a charity that I had heard about called Flying Scholarships for Disabled people (FSDP).
I had seen an article on an Ehlers Danlos (EDS) site about a lady who had EDS that had learnt to fly through FSDP. I read that way back in the summer but finally I had the courage to apply. Though if I am honest in my head I don’t think of myself as disabled, so I was really fighting a battle with myself of whether or not I was disabled enough to actually apply. But this lady with EDS had done it, so maybe I was. On the first working day of January I got in touch with FSDP and spoke to a lovely lady called Julie who informed me that the closing date was December 31st but if I completed the forms and got them back to her that day, I could be included with the 2017 applicants. So, I sat down and I filled in the forms, because of the time frames I didn’t have time to think about what would look good, or what people would be looking for, all I had time to do was complete the forms and speak from the heart.
Well to my utter surprise I made the short list and I was invited to RAF Cranwell in March for the selection process. My husband had been invited that weekend to teach at a martial arts seminar in Coventry, which was handy as we stayed overnight there and then he could go off home and then I could go off up to RAF Cranwell. Depending how far I have to walk I vary between using nothing, a stick or a wheelchair. I also use oxygen to help with the symptoms in particular dizziness and pain. These are probably the only outward obvious signs that there is something going on with my health. Well I was sat watching the seminar and I had my oxygen tubes in and I was doing some prep work for the interviews at Cranwell. Someone came up to me and said – oh, are you practicing your writing? Well that was a red rag to a bull. How dare someone assume that because my body is broken I am stupid - I obviously put him straight. When it came to the time that my husband and I were to go in our separate directions I started to cry - I rarely cry so this was quite a surprise to me. My husband said to me – you don’t have to go, you can turn around and come home, let me tell you that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t though, I got in my car and I drove up to Cranwell, crying the whole day and the words of that man echoing in my head – was this it, am I now completely useless to society?
I arrived at Cranwell and pulled myself together enough to go into the guardroom and get my passes to go on site. In there I met a couple of others getting passes – I didn’t know it then but it was the physio and one of the trustees. I followed them to park the car and on to where I needed to be. Then suddenly I was on my own again, in a loo crying not sure how I could walk into a room full of strangers. I very tentatively stepped out of the bathroom and one of the RAF volunteers helping there, came along, grabbed hold of my arm and held on. They talked to me and slowly led me into the room. If it wasn’t for Pauline doing that I think I would have run away. I met my mentors, who I had spoken to previously on the phone and gradually met other candidates. We had a presentation, found our rooms, had dinner, a bit of a social gathering and then before I knew it, I was back alone again in my room. I phoned my husband and assured him that I was ok, I joked with him that all I wanted to do was get through my interview tomorrow morning without crying - as long as I can do that, everything will be ok.
Mine was one of the first interviews of the day and I was interviewed by Andrew, a trustee and Keith the chairman. I sat in front of these two gentlemen, one with is own business and one a career pilot. I suddenly felt something I hadn’t felt for years. I felt intimidated, I felt I didn’t deserve to be there, I felt I used to be someone, I used to have the important job but now I am surplus to requirements and no longer have anything to offer society. I suddenly felt broken, not just in my body but at that moment I realised my spirit was broken. My emotional walls, my professional image, everything had abandoned me and I felt raw and exposed. Where had I gone, this wasn’t me, I am strong. Well poor Andrew started the interview with a completely innocuous question, how are you finding Cranwell so far? I had prepared, I had notes and in my head, I know in interviews I put forward my polished corporate image that I had spent a 15-year career working on. Well not in this interview, in this interview I burst into tears and promptly 3 years’ worth of locked up emotion came tumbling out. To be honest I can’t remember most of the interview I couldn’t think straight enough to answer with anything I had prepared - all I could think was for goodness sake women, stop crying! So again, instead of my lovely prepared answers in the interview I gave a real view of where I was emotionally with my illness - a view I had never let myself see let alone anyone else.
Eventually, at some point in the afternoon, I managed to pull myself together and actually stop crying. The final interview on the following day was in front of about 15 people. I hate talking in front of groups, it is my biggest fear, obviously with work I have had to give presentations but I really hate it. Strangely on that day I was oddly calm. I had work clothes on for the first time in 3 years and I felt like I had some of my armour back. I got through the interview and anytime I felt like I was going to cry, I looked at Andrew and it calmed down. I got through it. Not only did I get through it but I didn’t cry – I even managed to make a joke about the box of tissues on the table that had been subtly put there, just in case!
Well the following day I got a call from Julie, who told me that I had been awarded a scholarship and I was going to be sponsored by Lockheed Martin. I was over the moon, I felt like someone again, I was going to learn to fly!
In the days since Cranwell I have found a wonderful group of friends who have helped me find humour in my illness and have been a wonderful support. I now have an incredible group of doctors in London who are EDS specialists, I am getting the appropriate care and still undergoing tests and getting more diagnoses. I have also had another 2 operations and the day to day part of the illness carries on. I have restarted my PhD and completed my first round of research, I am now booking in my upgrade, which is a big step. I have also completed a course in biomedical science, which is the equivalent of A-levels in Biology, Physics and Chemistry. My grades have been good enough that I have a place at Oxford Brookes University to study Biomedical Science on a part time basis starting in September 2018. That worries me as I know I am going to have to go out in public, on my own in my wheelchair - I haven’t done that yet, it’s a big step. I have also agreed to have a television documentary made about my illness and my flying journey with FSDP. That really scared me as I still try and cover up my illness but I know I need to try and embrace it.
The Royal International Air Tattoo was an amazing event where I was formally awarded the flying scholarship by Prince Faisal of Jordan. It was a day that I felt immensely proud to be part of something so amazing and life changing. It is difficult to articulate just what the flying scholarship that you have given me means to me. I am a big fan of disaster movies, I love a good apocalyptic movie - my life at the moment feels like a house that has been destroyed by a tornado. Thanks to the scholarship I am starting to rebuild the foundation, I am rebuilding my spirit. Once I have done that I need to rebuild my new life, I need to move forward and not focus on the past. The rebuild will be different, it will not be a replication of my old life, because I know I can’t go back to it. I need to build a new life, a life that accepts that I am ill but that my illness can’t and won’t stop me.