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Krystal’s Story: How science fiction, my schooling, a concussion and being artful inspires my work

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When I entered University I never thought I’d work in healthcare, let alone in nutrition. I just sort of stumbled upon it. Back then I didn’t even know what a dietitian did.

I studied where I was born and raised, in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Go Jets Go!). As a teenager I was a huge fan of the science-fiction show, The X-Files. I wanted to work in forensic science like the lead woman character in that show. I did a double major in biochemistry and microbiology. I loved it. But I discovered that not only was forensic science not like “as seen on TV,” but it also wasn’t a job in high demand. I did for a period of time work in a research lab. There I also discovered that spending every single day with test tubes, microscopes and rats was not for me. But I loved learning and teaching science to others, especially when it involved nutrition.

I love food. I’d like to say I always have, but my mom would tell you otherwise. She would tell you that I was the pickiest eater as a kid. I do remember examining many of my dinner plates and dissecting out every little piece of onion I could find (was this foreshadowing my research days?). But I grew up and out of this. Not only to enjoy onions, but to enjoy cooking them too! (When chopping them I like to think it’s tears of joy escaping my burning eyes…)

So the day I met a Registered Dietitian was the day I realized I could combine my love for science and my love for food. I graduated that first science degree and went on to do a second in human nutritional sciences.

Studying dietetics was awesome. That degree gave me such a varied number of skills. It really showed me that dietitians could work anywhere in food and health. For me, I first narrowed it down to a city.

After the university courses were done, I applied and was accepted to the year-long dietetic internship program in Ottawa. This internship was one of the final stages to becoming a dietitian. I chose Ottawa so I could continue learning and working in French. I am bilingual and I knew I’d lose this language if I didn’t use it. When I graduated my internship, I stayed and got hired in a bilingual position.

During about the first five years of living here in Ottawa, I had worked in positions at the hospital, community health centres and in research in diabetes. I got experience in pediatrics, sport nutrition and helping patients navigate the healthcare system. I was exploring the city and out of town, hiking and traveling. I was finding my communities of people who also enjoyed the outdoors. I started to participate in improvisational theatre, growing my creative and artful side, which inspired not only my personal, but my professional life as well.

I was living life full speed ahead. I was working more than full-time hours. It was starting to take its toll, but I kept going. That is, I kept going until health problems were no longer something I just saw at work. Until the day serious health issues hit friends and family around me, as well as myself.

It seems like it all happened at once. What is it they say? When it rains it pours? Well I did feel weighed down as if drenched in water. You would think that working in healthcare I would have some advantage in these situations – that I would be better able to help my friends, family and myself. And maybe I do and maybe I am. I may have a better understanding of how the healthcare system works, in general. But just like everyone else, when it became personal, I was frustrated, overwhelmed and felt lost trying to figure out the best thing to do.

I feel like empathy and compassion are qualities and skills I was already honing as a healthcare professional before all of this happened. But the importance of these became so much more apparent when the tables were turned and I found my family and myself on the receiving end of care. We seemed bombarded with information. Overwhelmed by the amount of decisions to make, then afterwards questioning the choices. It was easy to come across conflicting information. Everyone offers up an opinion on what you should be doing or looking into, even if you didn’t ask for it.

It struck me how misinformation really affects us when we are vulnerable like this – I wanted to believe miraculous claims made by others. A part of me started to feel ashamed. As if choosing not to do radical therapies somehow meant I wasn’t trying hard enough to get better. Even though I knew this was false, the conflicting information on the outside created conflicting thoughts and emotions on the inside.

It’s interesting to me how in these situations we often want the quick fixes, but at the same time there tends to be more allure in grandiose complicated plans. I see this a lot as a dietitian. Many people come to me wanting meal plans or diets radically different from their own. I think we want this to feel like we’re really taking charge and doing everything we can for our health. But as a dietitian, I know these big changes and radical diet plans do not work. What we really need are simple practical solutions.

Despite knowing this, when I was the vulnerable one receiving care, I too found myself less impressed by the practical steps that work. I found myself also wanting an inappropriately large and complicated plan that was likely to fail me. I felt my empathy and compassion go up as I thought about my own patients and clients.

Specifically in terms of food and nutrition, I was noticing clearer than ever how consumed we get by what to consume. One correlation in one research study often gets blown out of proportion. Everywhere you look people without training in medical nutrition therapy are giving advice on what to eat. The way food is viewed and talked about becomes so negative. All of this adds to our stress, which in my opinion negatively affects our well-being more often than the food itself.

Like for many people, my own health journey is not over. My personal issue is with long-term Post Concussion Syndrome. Throughout my own navigation of the healthcare system, I have found certain things to help and other things to hinder my progress.

At one point, I didn’t have one consistent family doctor overseeing all of my care. Now that I have one I don’t have to repeat my story each time nor worry about details being lost. We don’t have to start from scratch and I have a doctor who I feel knows me.

At another point during my recovery, I had a practitioner who claimed they could help me when really they did not have the knowledge or experience. Practitioners can’t know everything. But when one assumes they do, they risk harm. It has been more helpful to me when my healthcare providers acknowledge their limits and refer me elsewhere when we’ve come to that limit.

Trying to figure out what course of action that will specifically work for me often involves trial and error. Every body is different. The “error” in this process has not been fun. But it’s been made easier by having different people on my healthcare team oversee the process. Professionals plus family and friends have an outside perspective of how I’m doing that I just can’t see. They have an objective view of my progress, which helps with decision-making.

Finally, I haven’t always felt like I get what I need from my appointments. Now a teacher of improv, I see so much how we need these theatre skills for communicating and connecting with the people we are trying to help. It has always helped me when my practitioners demonstrate these skills – when they have taken the time to truly listen and validate my story. It has further helped when, like in improv, they have given me tools and strategies I can use for the day-to-day life challenges. Lastly, communication is a two-way street – it’s also been important for me to go into these appointments prepared. I can go in with questions, I can say I need more out of my care, I can advocate for myself.

For me, it would seem like a waste to go through this experience and not take away anything meaningful for my own work. The core of my work as a dietitian is based off of what I’ve learned in school, training, professional development and my continued interest in science. But how I practice and interact with my clients is now also informed by my personal experience of how I would like to be treated by my healthcare team – the artful side of human compassion in healthcare.

When I entered University, I never thought I’d work in health let alone be so much on the receiving end of its care. Back then I didn’t know what a dietitian did. Today I know just how much I as a dietitian have to offer. And just as I am now writing instead of repeating my story with my healthcare team, I want to help you write yours.

So let’s enjoy food and our health.

Krystal Merrells, Registered Dietitian