I am the first in my family to go to uni. My parents immigrated from Ireland in the 60s. My dad had nine siblings, so I have a ridiculous number of cousins, around 60 or 70. I used to see them a lot when I was younger, but not anymore.
I grew up in Bristol and my family are still there. I came to physiotherapy in my 30s. I was running a jewellers at the time and although I was making decent money, I just didn't feel fulfilled by it. I was around a lot of undesirable people. I could handle myself, but I got to this point where I was bored of it.
One evening I was driving a friend of mine home and she was desperate to become a doctor but was working as a health assistant at the time. Part of her job was to clean the bodies of deceased people before their families saw them and I remember us sitting in my big black BMW. I must have had around 10K in cash in my pocket, but I kept thinking that her profession was so much better than my own. My friend became a doctor and she inspired me to change my career and my life. When people ask me, what inspired me to become a physiotherapist, I always think back to that moment.
I play a lot of sports and have a black belt in Kung Fu despite having chronic asthma, so it made sense for me to specialise and go into respiratory physiotherapy. Particularly in intensive care rehabilitation - working with patients from intensive care who need physio to get back to their function. We do a lot of work around ventilators, teaching humans how to breathe again once the ventilator is removed.
You never used to see tattoos on healthcare professionals but more and more we see healthcare professionals with them. Sometimes it helps breaks the ice. Some patients tell me they hate them and then we have a conversation about them. Other times, patients with dementia recognize me because of my tattoos – so that's quite interesting.
When I look back over my decision to become a physiotherapist, I know it was the right move. I feel fulfilled teaching students and helping them get better. It is so hard to make changes in hospitals and the NHS and so I thought the best way to do that is to go into teaching to shape the future workforce. In time we will change the way things are for the better. I think a lot of colleagues of mine are also pushing this through.
Whilst studying at Birmingham I found a lot of students there were from middle class white families and I wanted to change that. A lot of the guys at University of East London are first in the family to come to uni and I want to show them that achievement is down to hard work. I was always told I could never be a sportsman because of my asthma and I realised through martial arts that you can be as good as you are prepared to work: if you work hard enough you can still achieve it. And this is what I see.
University of East London gives opportunities to students who may not get them anywhere else. We turn out some of the most incredible free-thinking physios because of their diverse background.
Because of my specialist skills, I did two months at the Nightingale training staff there. With my chronic asthma I was quite concerned. But I felt compelled to help even thought it was putting me at risk. I trained staff in the ITU (Intensive Treatment Unit) and was very much on the frontline.
Mike Gara is a physiotherapy lecturer and Specialist Respiratory Physiotherapist.