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Kerry Kuluski, Health Experiences Research Group Visiting Scholar, 25th January 2012

My 6 months in Oxford

In March 2010, prior to defending my Doctoral thesis, I had my first meeting with Dr. Renée Lyons, the newly appointed Bridgepoint Chair in Complex Chronic Disease at Bridgepoint Health (a hospital based in Toronto, Canada). While sipping extra hot lattes at a downtown coffee shop, she said to me “I am recruiting postdoctoral fellows and will be sending one to Oxford, UK to work with the Health Experiences Research Group. What are your future plans?”

Ten months later I found myself walking amongst the historic 13th century buildings that sit along the Rivers Cherwell and Thames in the quaint city of Oxford, England. As a new graduate eager to take on the world, this was the opportunity of a lifetime and it panned out as such!

My daily commutes, characterized by running across busy Toronto intersections to catch the streetcar, were replaced with beautiful quiet walks along the Oxford canal. Could life get any better?

I spent 6 months (January- June 2011) training and working with the Health Experiences Research Group, a group of passionate qualitative researchers who collect personal narratives on health and illness from individuals around the UK. This work was a complement to my existing program of research at Bridgepoint Health where I am leading a study on patient experience and complex chronic disease.

I was a Visiting Scholar, based both in the Department of Primary Health Care and Green Templeton College. Spending time in Oxford was an opportunity to expand my skill set while forging a partnership with an esteemed group of researchers. During my post I was charged with the task of updating the Stroke section, which consisted of conducting interviews with stroke survivors and conducting secondary analysis on the existing collection posted on Healthtalkonline.org, specifically the population of stroke survivors under the age of 55. I am currently working on a paper on this collection using Bury’s Sociological Theory of Biographical Disruption, in other words, examining the ways in which the lives of young stroke survivors become interrupted.

As a Health Services Researcher, I quickly appreciated the value of using personal experience of health and illness, collected from individuals themselves, as a mechanism to guide policy and practice. Importantly, interviewing individuals, throughout England, in their homes was a humbling experience. I met amazing individuals, who shared with me how stroke changed their lives, and in many cases, served as a grounding experience. Resilience emerged as a key theme in the data. I felt inspired and motivated by their stories, and gained a greater appreciation for my own health and the value of life.

In addition to the training that I received, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the amount of travel and sightseeing that I undertook during my 6-month visit. In addition to exploring the vast colleges and museums throughout Oxfordshire, my visits brought me to Odense, Denmark, where I presented my Doctoral work; a weekend trip to my mother’s home country (Krakow, Poland), Utrecht, Holland to visit a friend; Edinburgh, Scotland to run a personal best half marathon; and Dublin, Ireland, to meet with a leading researcher in complex chronic disease (Dr. Susan Smith). I also visited much of the UK—as I conducted interviews as south as London and as North as Edinburgh. I conducted guest lectures at the University of Manchester and York, and arranged many visits and meetings with researchers, professors and health practitioners who generously shared their time and expertise.

In addition to research experience and travel, I met many amazing individuals. First, my Oxford family: Wendy Greenberg, her husband Stuart and son Patrick, who quickly adopted me, renting to me their quaint little flat above Stuart’s bicycle shop, filling the flat with all the basic necessities and having me over for many Sunday dinners! Most importantly, they became and remain great friends. I am also grateful to the Health Experiences Research Group who welcomed me into their family with open arms. I truly felt part of the team. Ruth Sanders trained me on the video camera and shared with me her time, expertise and office; Francie Smee and Vanessa Eade kept me organized; Dr. Louise Locock and Sue Ziebland patiently mentored me and guided me through my 6 month experience; Dr. Keith Ruddle played a key role in organizing my stay and connecting me to other researchers; Abi Eccles and Vanessa Eade willingly attended my River Thames boot camps; and the rest of the team encouraged and supported me, culminating into a very fulfilling experience. Their time, attention and support will not be forgotten!! I am especially grateful that I had a chance to meet Dr. Ann McPherson, a truly remarkable human being, who left a legacy for the Health Experience Research Group to carry forward.

I am now back in the busy metropolis called Toronto, surrounded by sky scrapers, chasing streetcars, and working at Bridgepoint Health. I love Toronto, and all its diversity but there is something magical about Oxford that keeps me wanting to go back!

I look forward to my next visit, planned for June 2012, where I can connect with great colleagues and friends and feel the nostalgia of a place where I stretched the capacity of my brain through work and travel!

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