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Joseph and Ursula with their daughters.

Two babies and a Medicine degree – “Daddy doctor” celebrates graduation

Studying for a medical degree is challenging under any circumstances, yet one new graduate achieved this as he and his partner welcomed two babies in the middle of a pandemic.

Changing nappies and studying for qualifying exams during lockdowns and beyond, Joseph Brougham, has had an experience he’s dubbed “the type of burden that is a blessing.”

Known to his toddlers as “Daddy doctor”, Joseph and his partner, Ursula, welcomed their first daughter, Ivy, in the second year of his Medicine programme at the University of Exeter Medical School. And shortly after as the pandemic reached its peak in April 2020, Odessa was born.

“We planned to have our kids close together and there wasn’t always going to be a perfect time as we figured things might get even more difficult when I became a junior doctor,” Joseph said.

The 34-year-old’s experience has made him passionate about promoting support that is available for people from less privileged backgrounds to support higher education – an agenda known as Widening Participation. Joseph said: "I feel lucky as I'm relatively privileged. People from more disadvantaged backgrounds face even greater challenges accessing medical school, never mind with kids. This is why work on Widening Participation is incredibly important."

Having babies did not come without its challenges, as Joseph’s aggregate score at the University took a plunge as he settled into fatherhood for the first time. This dip in form meant he had to turn around his fortune in the third year, but with Odessa arriving a month earlier than expected, anxiety crept in.

Joseph explained: “We were expecting Odessa on the 10th of May and my Applied Medical Knowledge (AMK) exams was scheduled for the middle of May, but she came earlier in April and that made me incredibly anxious as I had to do well on these exams. But as COVID peaked, we couldn’t sit the exams, so I had more time to spend with my daughters and used the summer to work on my weak areas and turn my grades around. It was a real whirlwind, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”

Joseph was full of praises for his partner, Ursula, who he said was incredibly supportive and has been an amazing mother to their children. “Ivy and Odessa (now 3 and 2) didn’t like being fed with bottles,” he said, “so Ursula was primarily doing the feeding stuff while I changed nappies, cleaned the house, and dropped Ivy off at the nursery as time went on.

“I have Ursula to thank because I wouldn’t have been able to complete my degree without her support. There were times I’d be exhausted from the unescapable workload of medical school, and she’d get up to care for the kids at night so I could buy an extra thirty-minute nap time and it made a difference.”

Ursula Cooper, Joseph’s partner and a Student Experience Officer at the University of Exeter, expressed her gratitude for his love and support in a demanding phase of their lives.

“During Joe’s medical degree, he was up in the night changing nappies before spending the day attending lectures and placements on an incredibly demanding course. He was by my side through lack of sleep and the emotions of being a new parent each and every day. He did all of this without complaint, meeting his deadlines, passing exams, and all whilst being an incredible Dad and partner.

“After five years, he’s done it, he graduates in July, and has two wonderful toddlers who call him Daddy Doctor as he leaves the house in the morning. I could not be more proud of Joe and what he’s achieved and we are excited to see what this new chapter brings.”

Before studying medicine, Joseph worked as a healthcare assistant at Leeds General Infirmary and was inspired by healthcare professionals who “changed his life” and spurred him to pursue a career in medicine.

Speaking on the parallels between fatherhood and medicine, Joseph said: “You feel a powerful sense of responsibility. With medicine, you’re also responsible for the lives of others and with the arrival of these new lives in our family, it was like preparing for life as a doctor. It was quite a big burden but the type of burden that is a blessing. I chose medicine and in the same vein, I chose fatherhood.”

The father of two also credits the University’s pastoral support, specifically Alice Osborne who was very kind and supportive as he worked to turn his grade around whilst caring for his young family.

Alice Osborne, who oversees pastoral and academic support for the medical school, spoke of her delight in seeing Joseph realise his dreams.

“Studying while juggling the demands of a young family is a challenge and I’m delighted to see Joe graduate and realise his ambition of becoming a doctor.

“There were times when family commitments clashed with assessments and his study time was inevitably squeezed. And there were also the difficulties of disrupted assessments and remote learning in the pandemic with children at home. It’s been quite a journey and I’m pleased for Joe.”

The University of Exeter provides support for student parents and the students’ guild has some specific resources which can be accessed on their website.

Date: 20 July 2022

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