I turned 29 in April 2021. This was the end of my third year of medical school. It had been a good year: strong evaluations, satisfactory shelf exams, and enjoyable learning of bedside medicine on rotations. By summer, I was preparing for Step and Level 2 testing and arranging auditions. At home, my husband was more consistently complaining that I wasn’t listening and didn’t always hear him properly. I brushed it off as I thought it was stress and just the sheer number of things my brain had to keep track of. By the end of my second audition rotation, I managed to get into an audiology appointment for a screening audiogram. One week later, I was wearing my first set of hearing aids 24/7. My audiogram showed approximately 50% loss across all frequencies (flat loss). And then, during the last match cycle, I failed to match.
Up to this time, I thought medical school was about perfection. Getting A’s, studying constantly, and getting high board scores all contribute to the image of a perfect medical student. This even started way before medical school as part of growing up, gymnastics, undergrad, and all the activities it takes to get to medical school. As much as I was convinced that I needed to be perfect, I was much more concerned about failing. “Failing,” no matter how trivial, was the opposite of being perfect and had the idea of a dreaded tarnished record. And yet, it happened. It happened here and there in small ways. But two events really struck home: I failed to match and my hearing failed unexpectedly at an early age.
There’s nothing like having your body start to fail normal standards, especially at an unexpected age. When I first started wearing hearing aids, I didn’t tell most people. I didn’t want to appear weak, incapable, or imperfect. Most people pay so little attention to details that they didn’t even notice my hearing aids until I pointed them out. That almost made it harder. In an effort to be more transparent about what I needed, I had to be explicit and defend my requests because “I couldn’t tell!” was the common response. I didn’t see it as a compliment. I would rather never need to say anything and have typical hearing. It was near impossible at that point to reconcile the “perfect medical student” with the “hard of hearing ears” within my psyche and ego. I was so entrenched in being and seeming perfect that I don’t even know how I would have handled having a preceptor mention any differences noticed. Somehow, no one mentioned it in any review.
Going unmatched later in the year was a devastating emotional outcome after a year of giving it my all. All the perfectionism was crashing down around me. It felt like matching would have made up for any remaining flaws or events that happened during the year. It felt like my hearing would be inconsequential if I had matched. I wanted all my flaws to just evaporate when I matched. Instead, I was forced to reconsider everything. What was it that I really wanted? And suddenly, perfectionism was not what I wanted. I wanted happiness. I wanted to enjoy life. My speciality was certain, but my life outside of medicine was not.
So, for once, I sat down and watched a full one-hour television show with complete attention. I tried things again, like yoga, that I thought I hated. And this time, I just let myself participate and enjoy. I didn’t compete with myself; it wasn’t done for improvement. I wasn’t trying to be on top any longer. It was hard and took conscious effort to not push myself to do more.
Now, after three months of imperfection, I’m much happier. I’m more open, curious, and explorative. This came with additional therapy work and introspection on my own time. But this is the start. It will be a work in progress for the rest of my life. It will be work to remind myself not to compete, not to fear failing, and to accept that I will have flaws. And know that there will be flaws I can’t predict.
As much as my hearing is a disability, it is also a framework. I know what I have to do in certain settings to be able to perform as expected. I’m becoming more comfortable with telling people I work with so that they are aware. Admitting you have a disability isn’t about giving up; it’s accepting that appropriate accommodations are needed to retain your quality of life and level of safety.
It feels scary. Perfection is all about control, and control feels secure. Life does not answer to control, though. Medicine appears to demand perfectionism by nature of the work. But in reality, we can’t control how our patients take their medicines, approach various diagnoses, or feel about screening exams. We can’t control if they fill their scripts or even if they have access to come see us. Even being an excellent physician is not about being perfect. Ironically, being able to acknowledge and act on our mistakes is one of the best acts we can do for patient care.
Failure isn’t catastrophic. And it’s OK to develop a life outside of medicine that doesn’t involve being the best. I was a nontraditional applicant to medical school, and even to me, it’s surprising that the biggest lesson I would learn in medical school is how to enjoy life outside of medicine. But I think I felt the need to always be on, always be studying, and always be good at whatever I was doing. I’m grateful I had the courage to move beyond perfectionism and become able to deeply enjoy the life I’ve built for myself.
How do you enjoy life outside of medicine? Share in the comments.
Gerri Lenth is an incoming PGY1 Preliminary Surgery Intern at Sutter Health in Roseville, California. She will be applying for Categorical General Surgery positions in the upcoming cycle. She can be reached at @Gerri-Lenth on Twitter.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz