A tough tale of sickness, recovery and fortitude

13th November 2009 at 00:00
The SQA Star Award for School Candidate of the Year

The SQA Star Award for School Candidate of the Year acknowledges a pupil who achieved success in Scottish Qualifications Authority exams and demonstrated outstanding commitment or achievement in a number of ways. This year, it went to a remarkable young woman who really did succeed against the odds.

When the family doctor told Ruth Sandison she had leukaemia, it was the second scariest moment of her life, says this year's SQA School Candidate of the Year.

"I'd been feeling unwell and went to the doctor who took blood and said `Come back next week'. But he came to the house the next day, sat in the living room with me and my family and said the tests showed leukaemia. I was 16. My first thought was of a book I'd read where a character in it had died of leukaemia."

As she sits now, three years later in the social space at Glasgow Caledonian University, Ruth is cheerful and charming. There's no trace of illness in her appearance, nor hint of tremor in her voice as she tells her story. But it's a tough tale to listen to, and as she talks quietly the conversation at the next table falters and dies.

"I was in shock. My wee brother went upstairs and cried. The doctor told us more, how it was the best kind because there was an 80 per cent chance of a cure. I got a couple of my friends round and told them, then I was taken to hospital.

"My family stayed till midnight then left me and went home. It was scary. It had all happened so fast. I didn't sleep much that night."

All this happened just after Christmas of Ruth's fifth year at school in 2006. "By the end of the week in hospital it was starting to sink in, and I began to wonder what would happen at school. I was supposed to be studying for prelims."

But there would be no prelims for Ruth that year. Instead, she had chemotherapy, weight loss and sickness, and her hair - now dark and glossy again - fell out. "Sometimes I had four days of chemo in a row for weeks, which was hard going. My hair would start to grow back between sessions, then fall out again. I had to wear a wig, which was awful."

Plans for four Highers were shelved that year, since Ruth was off school for six months. She did sit one exam - Intermediate 2 in maths - for which the guidance teacher tutored her at home. "With her help I managed to get an A," she says.

Ruth started attending school again in August 2007, and studied for three Highers - English, geography and modern studies. "I still was unwell and had lots of days off. So my teachers would come to the house. They were amazing, giving up their spare time that way to help me. Getting a teacher to yourself makes a big difference." She laughs. "I can recommend it.

"I then did another sixth year and got two more Highers, in philosophy and religious, moral and philosophical studies. I got five As in the end, which I never expected."

Until this point in the story, Ruth hasn't mentioned the scariest thing that happened to her. With a little prompting, she does. "My knee had fractured because the steroids had weakened my bones. I was on a morphine drip for the pain and was giggly at visiting time. Through the night, I dropped something and couldn't get it and realised I had no feeling or movement in my left side.

"I tried to ask the nurse for help and it was just a babble like a baby. Inside my head I knew what I was trying to say, but it wouldn't come out. It was terrifying."

A bad reaction to chemotherapy had formed blood clots in her brain - a stroke - the doctors discovered. So over the coming months, besides coping with leukaemia and chemotherapy, Ruth had to learn to move and speak again. "At first, I had no accent. I didn't sound like me.

"I couldn't eat solids in case I choked. They gave me yoghurt and custard and I had to suck water from a sponge. When I got hospital dinners, they pureed them." She makes a face. "I was wondering if I'd be like that for the rest of my life. I couldn't talk to anybody about it because I couldn't talk. It took a long time."

While the effects of illness and therapy often made Ruth feel dreadful, she really wanted to get to university, she says. "A lot of the time I couldn't work. So when I could, I did."

This determination impressed the staff at Galashiels Academy and was part of the reason they recommended her for the SQA award. But there was another. "She is not only courageous, but also very kind and considerate to others," the Galashiels proposal, written by pastoral teacher Morag Crawford, reads. "She has a maturity beyond her years."

Galashiels Academy's buddy system enabled Ruth to volunteer to mentor a first-year boy who had leukaemia, and the two families became good friends. She was active in raising money for cancer charities, through coffee mornings, raffles and parties, as well as the Race for Life, which she has completed three times. She helped others with cancer by speaking about her experiences at school and in the hospital.

Ruth's career plans have changed since her illness, she says. Nursing was previously a front-runner, but she has seen enough of that for one lifetime. "I'm interested in people and why they do things. So I've gone for psychology at university. I liked the atmosphere at Caledonian when I visited, and it's going well. I'm thinking of a career in counselling families with children who have cancer. I think I'd be good at it, and I like listening to people . and talking!"

The SQA awards and the publicity in the local papers made it worth while, Ruth says. "Well, not quite. It was a really glam evening, and I had my hair and make-up done and a nice dress on. My mum and dad and my brother and granny came with me, as well as Morag Crawford, Christine Brown and the new rector from the school. It was lovely just to be there, surrounded by my family and the teachers who had helped me through it all."

  • Next week, the other runner-up: Aidan Pritchard, Arbroath High
    • Runner-up

      Scott Gardner has doubts about the jacket he was photographed in for the school musical Grease. "It's sparkly and a bit . poncy," he says. "But you can use it if you like.

      "I play the piano and like singing. A couple of friends and I started jamming in sixth-year and met up to play together. It was good banter."

      But now that Scott has left Oldmachar Academy, the social side of life at Aberdeen University is something he's yet to catch up with. "I'm finding it hard enough to get in and keep up with the work. I've three deadlines for essays in the next weeks."

      Researching these is a challenge for Scott, as his eyesight has been deteriorating since P3 and he is registered blind. As a university student, the challenges he faces are greater than at school. "It's only now that I realise how much they did for me.

      "It's not that the university doesn't support me - they do. But in a different way. At school, I had a team of people working behind the scenes, and all the materials and books I needed were just delivered to me.

      "Here, it's like I'm the boss. So I have to decide first what form I want things in. If I go for Braille, and it's not good, I have to go back and tell them. It's more responsibility and is worrying."

      Braille is not ideal for a whole book, which has three to four times as many pages as a book of text. Nor can Scott readily dip into and select from items on a course or essay booklist - which typically has many more than need to be read. "Some courses don't recommend just one textbook, but half a dozen. I don't like asking for that many to be turned into materials I can use."

      If all this gives the impression that Scott is a young man who dwells on difficulties, nothing could be further from the truth. "I've hyped it up in my own mind because it's still early days and there's a fear of the unknown," he says. "It'll be fine. I've never gone in for that `It's really hard for me' stuff. I like to just get on with things."

      This is why the staff at Oldmachar proposed Scott for the School Candidate of the Year award. In fourth year, he was still able to read large type, and sat his Standard grades in a darkened room with adapted papers, says depute head Alison Taylor. "As his sight deteriorated, he learned Braille so he could do his Highers. He relished the challenges of learning to use assistive technologies, and trained other students with visual impairments."

      Getting around university is no problem, Scott says, since the council's mobility officer took him on orientation expeditions during the holidays. "There are more people about, but that's good because so many go out of their way to help you."

      Career choice after completing his degree - in history and politics - is uncertain, but PR is a possibility, Scott says. "I enjoy talking to people and am quite good at writing."

      Assistive technology has improved greatly in recent years, he says. "I've a small, handy Braille note-taker and a laptop with a screen-reader, which turns text into audio. But what I use most in lectures is an mp3 recorder called a Victor Stream."

      Technology is great, but people are better, Scott says. "I wouldn't be the person I am now without all the help I got from my family and teachers.

      "At university it's: `This is what you've got to do and this is the general area of how - now go and do it.' I wasn't prepared for that and it's taking me time to adapt. But I'll get there. The hardest part is getting out of bed and making it to the bus-stop.

      "But that's just a typical university student, isn't it?"

      Other winners

      • Academic Excellence Award - Alison Davies, The High School of Glasgow
        • Alison had amazing success at school, achieving five As at band 1 in Highers (100 per cent in chemistry, maths, geography and physics). This year, she achieved four As at band 1 in Advanced Highers (joint top in chemistry and 100 per cent in maths).


          • Russell Park, Hutcheson's Grammar, Glasgow - Russell achieved six As at band 1 in his Highers and is now studying for Advanced Highers.
          • Andrew Robertson, George Watson's College, Edinburgh - Andrew achieved four As at band 1 in his Advanced Highers and five As in his Highers last year.

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