Climbing My Post-Residency Mountain

Image: Ilona_ka/Shutterstock

The first few weeks after residency ended, I was writing, sleeping in, and reconnecting with family and friends. After years of studying, I was more than happy to take a few months off. But soon all the time alone began to weigh on me. I had nothing to do, and I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Residency was a very difficult time in my life, but it was also an incredible time of learning, comraderie, and meaning. After spending my days trying to save people’s lives, it was hard to find purpose in suddenly unstructured days.

Many of us simply move on to the next thing: the next research project, the next fellowship, the next job. We may never pause to rediscover who we are outside of our role as physicians. But I wanted time to get to know myself again. After so many years on this path, who was I?

Like many of my doctor friends, I found myself leaning on my partner. Spouses who had been neglected for years suddenly found their loved one was not only home, but following them from into the kitchen, peppering them with such insightful questions as, “What you doing? Making a sandwich? What kind of sandwich?” Luckily most of my friends were in strong marriages and were told lovingly-but firmly-that they had to figure out ways to amuse themselves.

My relationship wasn’t as strong, and the cracks began to show quickly. As I asked for more support, my boyfriend pulled away. We spent that summer in a protracted break-up; it was like breaking up with medicine and my partner at the same time. I felt deeply alone.

I decided to go on a trip out West, where I visited friends and went on long hikes. Climbing mountains, putting one foot in front of the other and arriving sweaty and exhausted on a mountain top, was the only time I felt calm that summer.

At the end of August, I climbed the Yosemite Falls trails. It was dry and dusty that summer. Even though I had hiked most weeks for the past few months, it was still very challenging. It was also surprisingly crowded. There is nothing as humbling as gasping for air in your fancy hiking outfit as a bunch of Italians bound past you in tight black pants.

I passed one woman on the trail, in loose fitting clothing and a hijab, pressed up the side of the mountain and panting. Her name was Sarah. We exchanged pleasantries and I admit, I was relieved not to be the slowest one on the trail.

I finally reached the top and took out my book, Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of essays by Marjorie Williams. The last essays were about her terminal cancer. She went into excruciating detail about the signs she missed, the ways her doctor dismissed her.

I thought about my own patients, and one man in particular. He told me excitedly one day he had lost a few pounds, something he had struggled to do for many years. I congratulated him. A few months later, he was unable to swallow and came to see my colleague, who ordered an endoscopy. He had cancer, already metastasized. In a few months he was dead.

I still feel terrible about this, like I should have caught it, even if I know that it isn’t rational. And on top of that mountain I thought about him. I thought about Marjorie Williams, and the family she left behind. I thought about the patients I hadn’t helped, and would fail to help in the future. I thought about how my boyfriend would never understand this kind of sadness, and this was one of the many reasons we weren’t going to make it. I began to sob, alone, looking out over Yosemite.

I started walking down, tears still in my eyes. I was racing ahead of the woman I had seen earlier, Sarah, not wanting to exchange anymore pleasantries. Then, I slipped, and felt a terrible crack in my ankle.

I couldn’t stand up. Hours from the bottom, and I couldn’t even stand. One couple came by and asked me to call them when I got down. “Our friends are doctors! They can help you!” they said cheerily, and I tried to look like I believed them. The doctors came down, and wished me good luck. Then Sarah trotted down and helped me stand. “I’ll walk with you,” she said, and I knew it wasn’t a question.

Sarah was exhausted, but she held my hand all the way down. We were still hobbling together well after sun down. Nonetheless, I felt safe with her. She told me she had been engaged a few months ago when her fiance suddenly ended it. She had converted to Islam and was estranged from her own family. She was climbing her own mountains that summer.

There is a kind of charity that I always strive for: the kind that makes you feel like you’re just two people appreciating one another’s humanity. Though she became my crutch on that mountain, Sarah made me feel as if letting me lean on her was her preferred method of hiking. We talked all the way down. Like many caregivers, it’s hard for me to accept care from others. She made it easy.

We finally made it down and ate the most delicious pizza I have ever tasted. I drove back to my tent and put a pillow under my swollen ankle. I was freezing, when I heard a small voice outside my tent. The couple next to me said I had looked cold, and offered me their extra sleeping bag. I passed out for 12 hours in my deepest sleep in years.

I had spent months running from my feelings, from my grief about work, from the problems in my relationship, from my discomfort of being alone with my thoughts. I placed one foot in front of another because I couldn’t sit still. My feet had taken me as far as they could. Now, I finally had to stop. Thanks to the kindness of loved ones and the compassion of strangers, I found myself again.

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