Sarah Leiter

Paralympic sport, patient care, and personal growth

Playing a Paralympic sport for Britain, and learning the hard way how to deal with setbacks, have helped Sarah achieve her ambition of becoming a doctor, despite having a rare eye disease.

She was born with albinism, which left her with only ten per cent of normal vision, and affects just one person in every seventeen thousand.  But it was a condition Sarah was determined she wouldn’t let beat her.

‘I just never let it become an issue’, she says. ‘I knew what I wanted to do, and I was going to do it.’

Sarah was born and grew up in Germany, and remembers the age of 11 bringing a formative moment in her life.

‘I was on a family bike ride through some woods and it was all sunshine and shade, which is about as bad for my vision as it gets. I was at the back, with my dad, and getting frustrated at having to go so slowly. So I asked him why it was that I had albinism, and my brother Constantin didn’t.’

‘He’s a doctor, and explained to me about genetics, which immediately fascinated me. I went from being cross to thinking how interesting genes and hereditary illnesses were, and that was when I decided I wanted to be a doctor.’

Her parents supported her to fulfil her ambition with her visual impairment, by buying special equipment, such as a video camera linked to a laptop, so she could zoom in the image and see the board clearly.

Unusually for a schoolgirl, she also learned how to touch type, so she didn’t miss taking important notes.

‘I liked maths and science at school”, she says. ‘I had an inquisitive mind and I liked to know how things worked, which I think fed into wanting to be a doctor.’

But school was proving unfulfilling for Sarah. ‘It wasn’t challenging enough’, she recalls. ‘There wasn’t enough intellectual curiosity around me.’

That unhappiness was spotted by a teacher, who suggested to Sarah’s parents that she might do better at a boarding school in England. She already knew the country, as she had spent summers learning English there.

‘When Mum and Dad suggested it, I said yes immediately. I really liked it there, and thought I would learn much more than in Germany.’

With her father Sarah visited four schools, decided on Lancing College in Sussex, and was accepted. ‘I knew it was a big decision, and it was a bit daunting, but it was the best I ever made from a schooling point of view. I just knew it was the right way to go, so I went for it.’

Alongside her studies, Sarah took up outdoor sports like sailing and running. And she began working with disabled children.

‘That gave me great joy’, she says. It felt so good to make them happy. I know how they can feel isolated, because Constantin has autism and he can be lonely sometimes. One girl suffered terrible anxiety, but all I had to do was rub her back to calm her and make her smile. I’ll never forget what that meant, both to her and me.’

Happy in her new world, Sarah continued her pursuit of becoming a doctor, studying maths, physics, chemistry and biology at A level. It was a big workload, but she had a strategy to deal with it. ‘I was extremely organised and diligent, and made sure I did everything that was asked of me. I didn’t allow my visual impairment to become an issue.’

She impressed at A level and, beating intense competition, won a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, to study medicine.

‘It was an easy transition because I loved it straight away. I loved the city and made some great friends. They were so hardworking, determined, clever, and interested in life, and that was just what I wanted.’

But soon came a setback. Within only months of arriving in Cambridge, when it seemed life was going so well, Sarah failed a mock exam, in anatomy.

‘All you can do is accept something like that and learn from it”, she says thoughtfully, remembering how she coped in an environment where failure is rare. ‘You have to look at what went wrong, and how to deal with it.’

‘I realised I couldn’t just expect everything I was being taught to sink in. The medicine course at Cambridge is too intensive for that. I had to learn how to revise properly. To keep going back over the work, summarise it again and again, until it was really embedded in my mind. In a way I was lucky, because it was just the right time to learn that lesson.’

Lesson learnt, and her studies now back on track, Sarah was surprised to find a new and unexpected adventure in her life. The year was 2012 and she was inspired by the London Olympics and Paralympics to take up a team sport, something she had never done before.

‘With my eyesight, I thought it would be impossible. It just hadn’t been an option. But then I saw goalball and I just had to give it a try.’

The sport is designed specifically for visually impaired people. Teams of three compete to throw a ball, embedded with a bell, into their opponents’ goal.

‘I fell in love with it”, Sarah says. “The people, the social life, it was all so new and it was brilliant. It’s a tactical and physical game, so it’s good for your mind and body as well.’

She had only been playing for a few months when Sarah was invited to a national talent spotting day. Three weeks later, she was playing in the Great Britain Development Squad, a feeder for the first team, and finding the sport brought unexpected benefits.

‘I surprised myself because I had what I wanted academically, but I had never seen myself as an athlete. It was a new world, made me fitter and stronger, and much more open about my visual impairment. It gave me the confidence to accept it as part of who I am.’

Sarah continued to play goalball alongside completing her medical studies. And the sport helped her to deal with a problem she had never suffered before.

‘Experiments can go wrong for months, or a whole year even when you’re in the labs. And it’s so frustrating. You have to find real resilience inside yourself. But goalball helped as it made me switch off from my problems. Having a support network of good friends and family around me was also important, as was my Christian faith.’

Sarah refused to give up, worked through her problems in the labs, completed her studies, and became a junior doctor at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

‘The first week was terrifying. You were taking responsibility for people’s lives, and you really feel that. Working in a team helps, as you have to support each other. And knowing you’re doing your best is important, too. As is humility.’

‘You’ll never be perfect. You’ll make the wrong decisions sometimes. Everyone does. It’s part of being human. But you need to have tried your best. It’s all you can do.’

And Sarah’s final words of advice for getting on in life, as she continues to tend to her patients on the hospital wards, alongside playing goalball?

‘If you want to do something, go for it. Don’t let anyone else say no. Be honest about your struggles, don’t try to hide them, but don’t give up. And know where your strength comes from, because that’s different for everyone and so important to help you on your way.’

Story was written by Simon Hall.

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