A path to a bigger journey

I will remember always the first time I met someone who would benefit from the fund I was raising. It was the day before I finished my trek on the Suffolk Coast Path. Like me she was a ten-year-old, but she was on crutches with Perthes’ disease, a disorder which degrades bone in the hip joints. The therapy prescribed was improvement of blood flow by regular exercise. This had to be impact-free and in practice meant swimming, in the pool at her local leisure centre.  Her mother, a working single parent, couldn’t take her there during the week. A volunteer who stepped in was generous with her time but needed help with the cost of transport. Just a few hundred pounds would cover this for several months.

So I had my first lesson in what a big difference a little can make, and my first experience of the satisfaction that can come from helping others in need.

My fundraising campaign began with a poster showing me on a shingle beach and urging donors to ‘be part of my journey’.  It ended with a celebration in Lowestoft at which Mr David Sheepshanks, the chairman at the time of The Suffolk Foundation, held up a copy of the poster and explained that a journey is exactly what charity is. The good that comes from it may start with the causes it tries to support, but that’s not where it ends. “Just as important,” he said, “is the journey that donors make when they start out on the path of philanthropy. And that’s seldom so clear as when they start so young.”

Soon I would learn just how true that is. Here’s an extract from the epilogue to Fifty Miles:

Two weeks after we’d finished in Lowestoft Dad and I made a visit to Riding for the Disabled in Hollesley. I’d been having riding lessons with my sister Rose, and so was happy getting in the saddle like everyone else – except, of course, that I wasn’t like everyone else, as the other children all suffered from disability.

Up to now I’d assumed – and I think Dad had too – that the point of charities like this was to help the disabled enjoy outdoor activity. But we learnt it had more to do with therapy. Children with muscular dystrophy were lying across their horse’s back, their muscle tone stimulated by the need to react to its movement. Later they were able to sit in the saddle, where the horse’s motion would develop strength in the pelvic region, and a sense of balance, so they were better able to walk.

Other children, with neurological problems such as Down syndrome, were dropping items from horseback into buckets on the ground in order to develop motor skills. All the young riders were gaining agility and confidence, and none was there just for fun.

Exposure to disability and its treatment brought a new dimension to my interests in music, prompting the choice of ‘Music and the Deaf’ as a research project at school. This was a chance to explore the curious ability of some people to appreciate music, and even perform it, without normal hearing. That gave me my first introduction to neuroscience, and to the phenomenon of ‘neuroplasticity’ which occurs when parts of the brain associated with one sensory system are re-allocated, if that sense is lost, to enhance the reception of signals from other senses instead.

When the headmaster saw my paper he lent me his copy of Musicophilia – Tales of Music and the Brain, by the neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book’s fascinating case studies brought home to me how music could be a source of therapy, to people of all ages and with various mental and emotional conditions.

The Suffolk Community Foundation (as it was later renamed) put us in touch with local charities offering music therapy in one form or other. Grants were made to them from the fund we’d set up, and I had the chance to see their work in action.

This encouraged me to play the clarinet to residents of a care home near school. It also helped me understand some of the news being reported from the medical world, such as the advances being made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, and in developing cures for dementia, MS, and various cancers – all conditions I saw among people with whom I had the chance of engaging.

So a calling grew to become a doctor. To qualify for medical studies I focused on science, and as I knew where I hoped they would lead, things fell into place more easily.

That is how I became a medical student. Whenever I have had to write a personal statement, commonly it has begun with what happened when I was ten, related how one thing led to another, and explained how the journey brought me to the point I’d reached.  

The year after the endowment was set up it had a boost from fundraising by my brother Sam (abseiling at Ipswich Hospital) and sister Rose (cycling the length of the Suffolk coast). In 2019 our fund was valued at £38,250, having provided grants of over £10,000 to charities and community groups supporting people of all ages with various forms of disability, infirmity or vulnerability, through outdoor and artistic activities, music therapy and other relief. It is estimated that long before I retire it will be worth well over £½ million, and be providing annual grants greater than its original size.

Fifty Miles with my Dad, published by Sarnia House in April 2020, is available in bookshops (subject to coronavirus), with net proceeds in aid of the ‘Fifty Miles with my Dad’ Fund at Suffolk Community Foundation.*

*The ‘Fifty Miles with my Dad’ Fund is an endowment managed by Suffolk Community Foundation and established in 2009 by the fundraising walk described in the book of the same name. Grants are made from the income to charities and community groups supporting those with disability, the infirm and the vulnerable.