Professional discrimination with cystic fibrosis. Part I: on TEFL and South Korea

This is a topic I really want to talk about and if I could give any advice to young adults with health conditions it would be this. I suppose it’s about more than work discrimination, it’s about being comfortable with who you are and having the confidence to believe in your abilities,  which is definitely something relevant to everyone; not just those with health conditions.

As far as I know,  I’ve not been subject to any significant discrimination in the UK workplace due to my CF, but it has affected me elsewhere.  I travelled widely in my gap year as I was well enough to do so and had no reason to expect that would change. I studied Spanish in Cuba, worked in an orphanage in South India and travelled around Bosnia and Croatia. Living in other countries is something I enjoy immensely and I hope to do it for much longer in the future.

When I graduated in 2010 I also applied to teach English in South Korea for a year.  I was interested in Korean culture, wanted to study the language,  had a good degree and was in many ways, just the kind of candidate the Korean government was looking for.

So I applied for the EPIK programme, run by the government to place native English teachers in schools around Korea. I’d heard they were getting tougher with their selection process that year, on account of the global recession taking a big bite out of Western economies and sending many fresh grads further afield.

I worked really hard on my application and was short-listed for a Skype interview. My interview passed without incident and me mentioning that I had ‘a lung condition that did not prevent me from working full-time in the UK and generally good health’. The interviewer told me this shouldn’t be a problem and I should just provide a doctor’s note with my documents.

An hour after the interview I got an email informing me that EPIK was delighted to welcome me onto this year’s programme.  I had been accepted! I was seriously chuffed,  but also a tiny bit scared when I thought about that doctor’s note, as I knew that cystic fibrosis was poorly understood in Korea and might be considered a much more serious condition than it was for me.

CF varies massively in terms of severity as a condition and naturally the more serious cases are the ones more frequently heard about. When my doctor put the letter together for me I was even less happy and felt really vulnerable about having to expose details which I did not think were relevant to my ability to teach in Korea.

Doctor’s are (quite rightly) very thorough sorts and this was no exception. My full medical history,  which looks much worse on paper than in reality, was divulged. Including: secondary diagnosis of cystic fibrosis-related diabetes (a sub-type, neither I nor II), chronic sinusitis, a lengthy medication list and lots of medical jargon. Thanks doc.

Of course, they were doing the right thing,  and they also explained that my lung function was within the average range and that I worked full-time in the UK and was in good health etc, but really the damage was done. I sent the letter off to EPIK with a heavy heart and then heard…nothing for over 2 weeks. Finally, a formal email came through informing me that “unfortunately they couldn’t proceed further with my application on this occasion.” Even though I’d already been accepted. I was devastated.

Don’t get me wrong, from an impersonal and purely economic point of view I got it; there were hundreds of other eager grads to pick from and I was just a bigger risk than some others. I understood that,  but from a personal perspective,  it still fucking hurt. It was a massive knock to my confidence and made me start to worry that, off the record, all potential employers would see me as the bigger risk compared to candidate b and pass me over, legal or not. I had not had any significant problems with my CF until a couple of years before then anyway as I’d had such a healthy childhood. I started to be scared that my career ambitions would end up being too big for me.

Fortunately, I stuck two fingers up to EPIK and went to Korea anyway. More on that in Part II.

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“Do anything nice on your day off then?”

…Why yes actually, I spent a very engaging 6 hours in hospital taking part in a first-of-its-kind phase III clinical gene therapy trial.

Could have done with an actual day off though, come to think of it.

So I’m currently taking part in the UK’s only ongoing major gene therapy trial for Cystic Fibrosis patients. To be considered you have to be well enough to be living a fairly ‘normal’ life with a lung function that is mild to moderately affected, but ill enough for them to clearly observe any potential improvements as a result of the trial. I am one of those lucky people.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s my first real attempt to ‘give something back’ to the CF community. I have fundraised before, but never to a significant level. I’ve filled out a few surveys in hospital and taken part in some very brief product trials but nothing more. I thought it was an appropriate time to do more and of course, with a potential benefit to myself.

Here’s the catch though. Like any major medical trial these days, there has to be a placebo involved in order to verify results for the wider world. This means, every 2nd person on the trial, will be taking a placebo treatment for the entire duration, (obviously) without their knowledge.

The trial is a year long, with monthly appointments that take a minimum of 4 hours and a maximum of 8. That is at least 72 extra hours I will spend at hospital this year, in addition to other routine appointments I must attend every other month. Not to mention any unscheduled time for treatment due to illness.

I must do this around a full-time job with hours that often extend over 9-6. I also have several side projects on the go, not to mention my career ambitions, regular exercise (an essential part of staying well) friends and family to see, a life to live and a decent amount of shopping to fit in too.

I could spend all that extra hospital time receiving nothing more than a simple saline solution with no medical benefit to my lungs. Which is why, I think, it’s very important to take part in things like this for reasons other than my own health. By participating, I’m helping scientists and doctors help the next generation of CF sufferers live healthier, longer lives, and perhaps even bring that all-elusive cure a step closer for us all.

That, I think, is a venture worth taking part in.

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One of the more successful recent shopping sojourns. Cheers Zara!

Some water with your order Madam: Still, sparkling or coconut?

This is a similar format to my post on posh popcorn so you’ll have to forgive me for that, but I couldn’t help commenting on this phenomenon…

The Vita Coco brand has become synonymous with coconut water. They have really hit the jackpot by popularising a drink, that was not previously well-known in many western FMCG markets, certainly not in the UK.  It seems you can’t really go wrong with coconut water; it’s low in fat, healthier than many soft drinks and a natural product with high mineral and electrolyte content. This has enabled Vita Coco to market their drink from several angles and through a few supply chains. It’s not much of a surprise that it can be found in virtually all organic and health food stores, nestled among its increasing number of competitors. Somewhat more impressive, is its appearance in supermarkets, corner shops and newsagents all over the country and now gyms and health clubs. Not only is Vita Coco being sold as a healthier alternative to run-of-the-mill soft drinks, it is also sold as a sports drink. The tagline “hydrate naturally, from a tree not a lab”  is no doubt in reference to the burgeoning ‘scientific’ sports drinks market, led by Lucozade and Powerade. Vita Coco continued this approach with the introduction  of a 500ml sports-cap version, launched late last year.This two-pronged attack is pretty clever and gives them access to a huge number of retailers.

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In fact, Vita Coco are on their way to creating a new product category, pretty much on their ownsies. Most people would not have considered coconut water a desirable product, or even known about its existence without Vita Coco. Combined with their high-profile marketing campaign, headed by Rihannna, and their brand has become highly desirable.  Aside from the obvious benefits of endorsement by an A-lister, Rihanna fits, in fact, she enhances the product image. It doesn’t really matter what she is in the headlines for, her music has always been strongly connected with her sunny Caribbean roots and it is this image which Vita Coco have been clever to cultivate.

Two years on from the Vita Coco UK launch in 2010 (the product launched much earlier in the US, back in 2004) and multiple rival brands have appeared on the shelves. Chi, Go Coco and Zico are some of the most accessible brands. Inevitably,  there has been a media backlash against the fast-growing category, and many consumers are now seeking out what may be better quality products, or those without such a price premium. One such brand is Agua d’Coco, from Brazil, where they have been quaffing coconut water probably for as long as they’ve had coconuts.  There’s no doubt Vita Coco’s marketing strategy has been impressive, and with so many rival products appearing it looks as if they have now reached their goal of emulating what “Red Bull did for energy drinks and Innocent did for smoothies.” However, if you’re now addicted to coconut water but think Vita Coco is a little too pricey, you can find Agua d’Coco and similar imports in large supermarkets, about 20% cheaper and possibly better tasting too.

The Gentrification of Popcorn: the Notting Hill of the Snack World.

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Just like some previously neglected London boroughs, there is something strange happening to cinema’s favourite snack: popcorn is being gentrified.  It is the snack au fait of yummy mummies and office workers throughout the nation. I’m not sure exactly where or when it started, maybe with Heston Blumenthal’s quest to scientifically reinvigorate the tired snack during his Mission Impossible series in 2011. Perhaps that helped widen the reach of  Metcalfe’s ‘Skinny Topcorn,’ launched back in 2008 through Julian Metcalfe’s Pret a Manger chain and now stocked in supermarkets nationwide (even my work canteen has it!). In the last 12 months we have seen a real explosion of posh popcorn products, from Tyrells (the classic posh crisp), Propercorn and G.H Cretors, to name only a few.

It is a classic example of repackaging and up-marketing a tired old product. All these brands focus on one key message: “this isn’t the popcorn you know, this stuff is tasty and oh look, it’s good for you!”  Except popcorn was never bad for you, it’s just corn after all. The cinema version was certainly heavy on the salt and sugar levels, but the calorie count was still relatively low. However, the key marketing message of ‘New Popcorn’ is how healthy it is and how little fat it contains. Huzzah! Metcalfe’s even lists the Weightwatcher’s points for each flavour on their website. This is all good news; desk grazing needed a new champion and it is the perfect response to a guilt-free snacking desire craved by those with a sedentary lifestyle.

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Previously the reserve of the posh crisp, gourmet flavours have made the jump to popcorn.

It is a textbook example of the endlessly cyclical nature of consumer products and trends. I object to paying £4 for a soulless tub of popcorn at the cinema, so…I don’t. I also had no intention of buying ‘Skinny Topcorn’ the first time I saw a packet. Yet now, I see it as a non-threatening snack to indulge upon a few times a week. What changed? Briefly put: branding and exposure.  That first packet I encountered was seen as an unreasonable extravagance, but when the same product appears across multiple supply chains and through different brands, it starts to seem normal. The inclusion of the everyman supermarket, Tesco, as a stockist was particularly significant.

Additionally, a distinction has been created between popcorn at the cinema –often seen as low-quality junk food, not to be entertained by the discerning consumer– to New Popcorn’s emphasis on handmade, high-quality ingredients and ‘gourmet’ flavours. The transition is complete and before we know it, we are adding another non-essential item to our shopping list, one which would not have been there five years ago let alone two. While I ponder that, I may just munch on this bag of G.H. Cretor’s Premium new Mature Cheddar popcorn…

Yves Saint Laurent and the Forever Youth Liberator: vampires in disguise or just skincare advertising?

Anti-ageing products are nothing new, and neither are vampires for that matter. But a recent trip to Boots the chemist made me think about both of these things and a connection started to form. The steady release of anti-ageing products, each launch more ambitious than the last, is impossible to miss. Every major brand now has at least one anti-ageing line, most have several. The advertising is far from subtle and the effect created is pretty striking when each product is lined up next to each other. As for the link between the two, well, stick with me, but they are both symptoms of a wider picture that is our society’s obsession with ageing.

Trends in popular culture and media are supposed to reflect society’s preoccupations and there’s no denying we’re pretty caught up with vampires in recent years, women in particular. Jumping on the vampire bandwagon now is almost passé and there have been many attempts to figure out just why we have become so obsessed with vampires, but the interest shows no sign of abating soon. Last year saw the final Twilight release Breaking Dawn: Part II, the latest Underworld film, Awakening, season 4 of Vampire Diaries and series 5 of Southern Vampire sexfest, True Blood. So what does that say about women’s preoccupations in our society? First, look at the way the portrayal of vampires has changed in recent years. The portrayal of Dracula in the 1931 and 1958 films is like a different species to the modern vampire; the latter is much less blood sucking fiend and rather more Abercrombie and Fitch. In some aspects, the ‘vampire’ is irrelevant as it is a part of a wider trend involving all things supernatural. But there are recurring themes displayed by this vampire of popular culture: beauty, immortality –endless youth, more specifically- and material wealth. American high schools also feature heavily, but that may not be so relevant here!

To me, this trend seems to mirror something in skincare and cosmetic advertising. With the incredible advances in medicine, we have lost touch with our mortality. More illnesses are consigned to history books every year (at least in this part of the world).  The one certainty in life is becoming harder to talk about, as our medical technology and cosmetic innovations make us look younger and live longer.

It seems to me that women from the ages of 16/18 onwards aspire to look as if they are 25 (often the age of actors portraying so-called teens in many of the aforementioned high school dramas). From then on it seems acceptable for women to have a ‘target age’ of 30, regardless of their actual age, but that is the limit. Women’s faces are expected to be frozen in time for the next couple of decades as a picture of endless youth; rather like a vampire in fact.

In terms of brands, I have collected some of my favourite, rather forceful, product names:

Elizabeth Arden- ‘Daily Youth Restoring Serum’.

YSL- ‘Forever Youth Liberator Serum.’Image

L’oreal- ‘Age Perfect Cell Renew’ and the ‘Youthcode’ line (repeat offenders, apparently).Image

There have been real scientific advances in skincare in the last few years and no doubt, we are on the cusp of further innovation. There’s nothing wrong with women learning to take better care of their skin. Furthermore, brands wouldn’t be fulfilling their purpose if they didn’t capitalize on this concern, although it is hard to draw the line between that, and creating a concern/desire. Indeed, the purpose of looking young is to emulate health and physical prime, who can be blamed for wanting that?

But, clearly, we can’t all be 25-30, all of the time. It cannot be right, or healthy, for several generations of women to aspire to look like such a narrow age range, at the exclusion of all others. We are not vampires or supernatural beings, we are human. To be human is to age, with the hope of acquiring wisdom and experience as we do so. A society that goes to increasing lengths to hide any evidence of this experience and appears not to honour the signs of this wisdom, is probably not such a healthy one.