Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Medical School: Four Years, Four Parts

Year One. 

A year of self-discovery and uncertainty. 

Who I was as a person intrinsically changed, shifting my perspective in a way that was both exciting and terrifying. I’ll admit that the terror and anxiety outweighed the excitement a significant portion of the time, and unfortunately a lot of my decisions on whether to engage or not engage with the people in my life, both old and new, were based off of that fear.

Along with those changes came the overwhelming feelings that inevitably go hand in hand with starting the daunting path of pursuing medicine, meeting new people, and being in unexplored places.

Most people probably don’t know that I questioned my decision of becoming a doctor nearly every day that year. 

If beginning the journey of medical school was a white line, I stood with my feet firmly planted on both sides – one in my old life and the roots that had taken hold, and the other in a staggeringly overwhelming new life, resistant and hesitant of everything it entailed.

As the year progressed, however, a chasm started to split along that white line, slowly widening more and more day by day until balancing both my old and new life became increasingly difficult. I stubbornly persisted in trying to maintain that balance despite subconsciously knowing how much I was failing at it. 

However, it was also a year of laughs and of joy. Of refreshing moments and allowing myself to open up to people who were, at that point, strangers. 

I learned – and for the first time truly believed - that vulnerability is strength.

I learned of deficient areas in my life and made goals on how to improve them, most of which included opening myself up more to people about my thoughts, my feelings, and myself. Professional and personal development all in one – two birds with one stone. Easy, right?

If only I had known that my first year of medical school was the slow ascent to the pinnacle of what would become a downward slope.

Year Two.

A year of pain.

Suffocating and heartbreaking pain. 

It was rare that I went a day without crying, and it’s possible that I was clinically depressed, something I had not experienced before and, despite my adamant belief in mental health care, never admitted to myself when it was happening. 

I used to think that being able to maintain a normal, even positive, external façade in tough circumstances was a strength of mine, but I’ve learned since that it can also most certainly be a weakness.

One of the worst feelings I think I have ever experienced is feeling alone in a crowded room filled with people close to you, and my second year of medical school consisted of far too many of those moments.

The overwhelming newness of the prior year’s changes had settled into multiple harsh realities, none of which I was equipped to deal with, especially when dangerously combined with everything occurring during one of the hardest years of medical school. 

The chasm had widened to a point where now I had no choice but to fully embrace this new life of mine, both feet on one side, and I often felt a shadow of my former self. Looking in the mirror was difficult and some days I almost expected it to crack, a true reflection of what I felt was happening inside myself.

I marvel at the friends and people in my life that kept me afloat (and still do) on the daily, often without even realizing the depth of their impact.

There was a notable transformative, bright spot that year – a classmate who came into my life and helped me laugh through it all…somebody who found sinking pieces of myself and dug them out until I started to recognize them again, though they were certainly still cracked and caked with grime. There’s something to be said for letting a person figuratively pick you up.

By the end of my second year of medical school, and before moving to Pennsylvania, a few situations had thankfully resolved, and my world started to spin in a direction closer and closer to a purposeful, positive axis. It wasn’t the same one as before (nor did I want it to be), but was instead something different, an intriguing and curious new start. 

One that, thankfully, would only become stronger, better, and more meaningful with time. 

Year Three.

A year of growth. 

The pieces of myself that had been chipped away at in the prior years started to repair themselves. I started to polish the dirt off slowly but surely.

What I found underneath was surprising – on the surface there were parts that had always been there – certain character traits, strengths, and weaknesses. But there was something else…a shimmer that hadn’t been there before. A newfound strength and comfort that I didn’t know what to do with at first.

My academic drive and motivation returned, something I hadn’t truly fathomed that I lost until beginning my third year. But along with that, there was a humility and empathy that hadn’t been present prior. 

I used to joke to people that met me during my medical school years that if they had met me beforehand, there’s a good chance we might not have been friends. I was judgmental, cocky about it, and also lacked any sort of understanding for those different than me. I needed humility and a wake-up call. 

All of the pain I experienced was completely and absolutely worth it to rip that horrible, inexcusable part of me away. Some of the things I have said and done to people in the past, all in the name of religion, are some of my biggest regrets. Maybe one day I’ll find the strength to send apologies to people in my past I no longer talk to and treated poorly.

In a year defined by caring for patients for the first time in a clinical setting, I feel like I truly started to grasp whatever it is that connects each of us through our human fragility. We are all capable of having moments of both utter joy and overwhelming suffering, no matter our life circumstance. 

For every time a patient looked at me and said “thank you” I wanted to say “No, thank you” right back. I strongly feel that being open to learning from each other will always be the true foundation of humanity.

During this year, I also became wonderfully aware and open to the value and concept of community – of truly creating a family with people unrelated to you – as this was my first time living outside of Florida. As the growth continued, and for the first time since the beginning of medical school, I was able to put my guard down and allow myself to connect with those around me. 

And what a blessing it was. 

Because for all of the dirt that I wasn’t able to polish off or the cracks I wasn’t able to repair, my patients, my program’s faculty, my classmates, and other friends…they did it for me, finishing and touching up the repairs in my life with a care and compassion and acceptance that I don’t think they realized they exuded.

Thank you.

Year Four.

A year of self-acceptance and learning to love myself.

If the first three years involved discovering more of who I am and the person I want to be in the context of other people’s support and drawing on their strength, this past year involved this same discovery, but instead drawn from my own fortitude, self-love, and resilience.

It was the year that I truly felt healed.

For years, I had forgotten what it was like to feel at peace. It didn’t occur to me until the end of third year going into this past year, that an inner contentment had returned. It had occurred so gradually that I almost didn’t realize it until one random day I thought to myself “Wow, I’m truly happy”, paused to reflect on the notion, and then had no subsequent feelings of anxiety or despair creep back in.

The nature of fourth year contributed to that.

Whereas third year involved the stresses and challenges of clinical rotations in a setting where I could fall back on my classmates and familiar faculty, some of fourth year involved doing clinical rotations alone in a foreign environment. It was one of the most intimidating things I have done in my professional career so far and I was blessed to meet new people and sharpen not just my clinical skills, but also my character. 

After, I spent months traveling around the country for interviews, which was equally as isolating and intimidating. I was left with just myself in unfamiliar places. Hours and hours spent wandering new streets. Eating alone in restaurants. Filling the time in my day however I wanted to, often only speaking to strangers. Or not really speaking much at all. 

The parts of me that had been cleaned off and repaired to reflect the positive growth in the prior year were now becoming more refined…more confident and more content. 

I’m stronger now. 

I don’t recognize the person I am now when compared to the person I was starting my first year of medical school. However, I have a feeling that I’m not alone in that sentiment. My journey is just one amongst my classmates – each having their own stories that defines them. 

Even as graduation nears, I’m still learning. I’m still conquering fears and insecurities. And truthfully, I hope that part never becomes stagnant. I hope that as I begin residency in a few short months that the layers never stop being peeled away, testing me to continue to push to be the best version of myself that I possibly can be. 

For now, I’m simply content with being able to say that I’m proud of the person that I am. 


Here’s to the next journey.

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