11 Mar 2021
A successful intervention into her crippling IBS was the trigger that led Judith Bamford to leave her high-flying PR career to start all over again in dietetics.
The sun was splitting the skies as a colleague and I walked to our office after an early breakfast meeting. A client had taken us out the night before for dinner, drinks and a premiere in which a live symphony orchestra played the score to one of their movies, but there was no rest for the wicked. We had a proposal due by midday and I had a one-to-one with the MD in the afternoon. Over a late-lunch and glass of wine I was told I was promoted with immediate effect. I worked hard to get the promotion, but in that moment, I knew I needed to bite the bullet...
Six years ago, the thought of returning to university would have been, quite frankly, hilarious. But little did I know my path was slowly changing. I had completed a degree in Public Relations at Ulster University and was five years into my career as a practitioner in one of the top ten agencies in the world. I had strong experience working on award-winning campaigns; had recruited my childhood hero, Melanie C, for one such; garnered recognition as a promising young practitioner as part of a Cannes Lion and PRCA-led competition; and was on the cusp of a game-changing promotion. At the time, I was juggling umbrella accounts for seven key global clients, handling huge budgets, managing multiple integrated teams, and playing an integral role on the steering committee for the global creative catalyst network.
I was in the thick of corporate life. Behind the facade of a confident pint-sized practitioner, however, I was slowly grinding to a halt. I had been living with bloating and chronic pain for over two years, was crippled with anxiety I had successfully hidden, and energy reserves were pretty much out.
A perk of corporate life was private healthcare so, naturally, I thought I would get to the bottom of it in no time. After numerous visits to specialists, taking on the FODMAPS diet twice, and multiple hospital procedures, I was diagnosed with IBS. The doctor nonchalantly said that was very common with around one-in-four women in the UK living with it and wished me luck.
I realised there was no magic pill I could take – I needed to take control myself. In desperation, I followed blogs, sought out specialists and bought every cookbook that promised to help. I started a journey of changing my lifestyle holistically, of which diet was one component. I tirelessly researched food and ingredients and how they could help ease symptoms. I fell down the rabbit hole of misinformation once or twice, but found it fascinating.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I was able to get on top of my symptoms after seeing a specialist. It was life-changing. It certainly wasn’t overnight, but I was no longer in pain, I had energy for the first time in years and had the drive and headspace to learn again. I had been considering a career change for some time. I was driven by a desire to work with people from all walks of life, I loved the variety my career offered, and the challenges posed when developing creative strategic solutions.
But, in spite of all the perks of corporate life, I needed a change. I realised something was missing, I wanted a role in which I could make a real difference to others. I benefited so greatly from the help I had received, and nutrition was no longer something I was just interested in, it was personal to me, and I was passionate about it. From here, I approached my career change like a client brief and poured all my experience gained in ten years of business into creating a plan.
I researched, compared and contrasted all sorts of nutrition-based roles – from nutritional therapist to dietitian – worked out transferrable skills, canvassed friends in the industry, grilled lecturers, watched day-in-the-life videos, you name it and set my sights on becoming a dietitian. I was drawn to the profession because of the opportunity to work in a clinical environment and the other roles available once qualified that could truly make a difference.
“Despite the perks of corporate life, I wanted a role in which I could make a real difference”
My journey to qualifying began in 2018 when I undertook an Access Diploma in Biomedical Sciences at Belfast Metropolitan and sat the HPAT which was quite possibly the most terrifying exam I can recall. I was over the moon to get a place on the Dietetics course at Ulster University and after 11 years returned to the lecture theatre in autumn 2019. University was daunting, more so than the boardroom believe it or not, but second time around I’m more driven than ever before – perhaps being a mature student I feel I have more to lose.
I quickly gained my stride with lab work and exams in semester one, met a great group of friends and juggled it all alongside freelance consultancy work. Life quickly became a lot less fine dining on expense accounts and more feasting on SU offerings.
Second semester presented an entirely new set of challenges, with student life going from campus coffees, lectures and labs to sitting behind my laptop at home during the coronavirus pandemic. An unusual way of student life, but it was nice to occasionally see the lecturer’s children pop-up on-screen donning cardboard robot heads or action figures in hand.
Talking to friends in industry working on the frontline during the outbreak was equal parts daunting and motivating. I only hope I will be making that kind of difference one day. In the meantime, I will soak up all I can in the lecture theatre, the lab, at home behind my screen or in the boardroom.
The risk was high with such a change, but I’ve learned both careers involve taking complex information and making it palatable for a target audience, be that millennials for the latest launch or a client in clinic and, most importantly, both have people at the heart. Maybe one day my two worlds will collide.
I hope to work in the NHS but don’t intend to leave comms behind entirely. I am especially keen to focus on communication around the impact of the diet on children’s mental health. So, while it’s unlikely I will get to work with Mel C again any time soon and invitations to symphony orchestrated premieres have dried up, I couldn’t be happier. I truly am proud to be a dietitian in training.
Judith Bamford is a student dietitian at Ulster University.