50th Student Stories: Nicola Gemmell

We're celebrating student achievements throughout the 50 year history of the OU Students Association. Next up - Nicola Gemmell's study journey.


I have proved that you can leave school with no qualifications and still make a success of your life.

As I lie here poorly in hospital with yet another kidney infection, I can’t help but think back over the last 40 + years of my life and wonder how different it would have been without having to live with a debilitating kidney illness. When I was 4 years old, I had no idea that in the next few weeks that followed my life would be changed forever.

Nicola in hospital with a kidney infection in 2021

When I became very ill with a ‘sickness virus’, over the next few weeks my health continued to deteriorate. One evening that followed my dad ended up taking me to hospital as I was screaming in pain. At that time, I was living in Weymouth, Dorset, with my family and the doctors at the local hospital in Weymouth decided that I needed to be transferred to the specialist children’s unit at Southampton General Hospital. Over the next 12 months that I spent in hospital I had three surgeries and numerous medical procedures to save my life. This included a full nephrectomy (kidney removal) of my right kidney and partial nephrectomy of my left kidney

I remember the months that followed being a very lonely time for me, having to go to school in hospital and seeing children come and go in the ward wasn’t a great experience. I hardly saw my sister as the hospital was so far away from my home in Weymouth and I missed her so much. I always knew that if my sister was beside me that everything would be okay and that is still the case today. We share a special bond where we are not just sisters but best friends too.

Throughout the rest of my childhood, I remember that there was no expectation that I would achieve anything in my life because I was the sick child in the family. My parents clung onto the last conversation they had with my surgeon that I wouldn’t live past my 16th birthday without a kidney transplant. Even from a young age I was fiercely independent, and I was determined to live a full life and one where I wasn’t defined by my kidney illness.

I am proof that even when the odds aren’t in your favour if you have grit and determination, you can achieve anything you put your mind to it.

When I was 15 years old my Mum became very ill after a routine operation went wrong and she needed an emergency surgery to save her life. When my Mum finally came home from hospital, my dad got a new job and moved abroad to work, and my sister moved to the Netherlands to live with her partner. So, I left school early to care for my Mum. It was a difficult time for us all and a time that isn’t easy to talk about even now. A few years later when I could start to think about my future, I decided to go back to college to study. I had always dreamed of becoming a nurse, but I knew my body wouldn’t cope with the long hours and shift work, so I gave up on that dream. As I had no qualifications, I enrolled to study a National Certificate in Business Studies and I then completed my HND in Business and Finance with distinction. It was the first time that I truly felt that I had achieved anything in my life. This wouldn’t have been possible without the encouragement of my partner who taught me to believe in myself. I proved all the doubters in my life wrong that I could achieve something.

Just before the covid pandemic started I was off work ill with another kidney infection. I had a long career in Finance over the last 15 years, yet I felt extremely lost. I was working in an industry that really didn’t interest me anymore. I really was questioning my purpose in this world. Then a good friend of mine was studying with The Open University, and she inspired me to look at the courses they provided. I always felt that my education journey was unfinished because I moved to Manchester shortly after graduating from college. With my illness causing extreme tiredness and chronic pain The Open University was the perfect fit for me. Studying at any hour that suited me it gave me a purpose and for the first time in years I believed that I could finally start working towards becoming a Psychotherapist which is something that has interested me for such a long time. 

Nicola now, loving life as an OU student

I am now halfway through my Psychology degree, and for the first time in my life I am starting to believe that I might be able to achieve my dream. I am so thankful though that my friend inspired me to study with The Open University. I still suffer with kidney infections and extreme tiredness which will never go away, but my Husband Bruce and my son Cam constantly motivate and support me every step of the way and for that I feel extremely lucky.


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