When I tell people I am a Registered Dietitian, I am often asked why I chose this career path, so I thought I’d write about it in a blog post. I’ll also be weaving in parts of my health journey into this story as they are very much entwined.
I have no doubt that my interest in becoming a healthcare professional is related to my own personal medical history. Let’s backtrack: I was born with a rare condition in my left leg that is a vascular malformation syndrome. This means that the veins don’t function properly in my left leg, which means my muscles and bones are weakened and I have arthritic joints in that leg.
Up until age 16, I was able to walk unaided; I could walk short distances but not long distances. I still dealt with medical issues and had countless doctor appointments and sessions with occupational therapists and physical therapists but nothing too drastic. I had a pretty normal childhood.
When I was 16 years old, my life changed. I remember this moment vividly; I was in 11th grade and was walking out of a math exam at the end of the school year and felt something strange in my left leg. I continued to walk until I fell to the ground and knew something was wrong.
I was taken by ambulance to the hospital and was told that I had spontaneously fractured my tibia and fibula. Suddenly, I had a whole new life to face at such a young age. The poor circulation in my leg delayed the healing process so it took 6 months for my bones to heal. You read that right. I spent 6 months of my last year of high school wearing a plaster cast up to my mid-thigh.
After my leg healed and the cast was removed, I did 6 months of intensive physical therapy to regain as much strength, mobility, and function back as I could. My leg has never been the same since. After that point, I started using forearm crutches to walk short distances and a manual wheelchair or scooter to get around outside my home.
My Interest in Health
I have been interested in health, fitness, and nutrition for as long as I can remember. This passion likely sparked from the need to take extra care of my health and maintain the mobility, function, and strength in my left leg with exercise and physical therapy.
Upon entering university, I knew I was fascinated by how the human body worked but had no idea what career path I wanted so I figured majoring in kinesiology would be a good place to start. I LOVED studying kinesiology and during my third year I began researching different healthcare professions. After learning about career options, I stumbled upon dietetics and knew it would be a good fit for me because of the many different areas dietitians can work in, my passion for food and health, and my love for working with people.
After doing more research, I discovered I needed to do a second undergraduate degree in nutrition to qualify for dietetic internships or masters programs, so I applied to Ryerson’s program and started right after I graduated from York University with my Kinesiology degree.
Undergraduate Nutrition Studies
Enter my years at Ryerson University’s Nutrition program. Similar to my kinesiology degree, I loved studying nutrition. During the program, I had no idea what area of dietetics I wanted to go into so I kept an open mind.
In some ways, I often felt like a lone wolf during my studies as I was the only person with a visible physical disability in all of my university degrees. I remember one of my professors in my first year of Kinesiology asking me why I was in the program as he had only ever had one other student with a disability. I told him that I was fascinated by the human body. I never once thought my medical condition would stop me from becoming a licensed healthcare professional. In fact, I always believed it would give me a unique advantage.
The summer before starting my fourth year of the program, I had a fall and fractured my left tibia and fibula again (10 years after the first time). That was the start of the worst year and a half of my life dealing with a string of devastating medical issues related to my vascular malformation syndrome (that’s a story for another time).
That was also the year that I applied for dietetic internships and graduate programs (which is stressful enough without health challenges), had several interviews, and accepted my offer at Ryerson’s Masters of Health Science in Nutrition Communication program. To say the least, my life was insane.
Graduate Nutrition Studies
I started Ryerson’s MHSc program in September 2018, less than a week after one of the most traumatic hospitalizations of my life. I was still dealing with my health issues, yet pouring myself into my school work was the best distraction I could have asked for.
I LOVED my experience in the masters program. It will always hold a special place in my heart. In December of 2018, during winter break of my first semester, I had major surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to remove my spleen. After that surgery, my life completely changed for the better as my health issues remained stable. This allowed me to focus even more on my studies.
Throughout my time in graduate school, I grew tremendously. My classmates and I were exposed to many areas within dietetics and we heard from speakers with unconventional career paths. During this time I came to realize that I wanted an atypical dietetics career for myself. My program director always encouraged us to work in places where dietitians don’t currently work and not to be afraid of paving a trail for our profession. This message always resonated with me, and still does today.
During my dietetic internship rotations (which was part of my masters program), I was exposed to many different practice areas. One of my placements was with Special Olympics Ontario, planning nutrition workshops for athletes with intellectual disabilities, where I was the first dietetic student they’d ever had. It was such a rewarding experience and it got me thinking about how I could combine my passions for nutrition and accessibility together. My program director always told me how I was paving a trail for our profession with this placement.
My graduate program ended in December 2019, but I had an extra 6-week placement from January – February 2020 as per my accommodations, so I finished the program in February 2020, just a few weeks before the world went into a lockdown from the pandemic.
Life as a New Grad
At the end of February, my program director (who also taught one of the courses) hosted a panel for the students the year behind me where dietitians with unique career paths spoke. Grads of the program were invited to attend so I jumped at the opportunity. The main theme that came up was that if your dream job doesn’t exist yet, go out and create it for yourself.
I have chills when I think about this but I went up to my program director and told her that I’m pretty sure my dream job doesn’t exist yet. And she said something along the lines of “I don’t think your dream job exists yet either. But I know you will go and create it for yourself and be a pioneer in our profession.”
I hope this story of how I became a dietitian resonated with you. As you can see, it was a long, challenging journey filled with countless ups and downs. Regardless, the journey was a worthwhile and rewarding one. Stay tuned for the next blog post where I share what my life has been like as a newly graduated dietitian and my entrepreneurial journey.
Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian with a Masters of Health Science (MHSc) in Nutrition Communications, whose mission is to empower and support people with disabilities to manage their condition, prevent complications, and live active lifestyles through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and consulting business and runs her blog which has simple recipes and health information for the disability community.