Looking at Med School with a Rear-View Perspective

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Op-Med ran the “Match Day” contest in March 2018. We are excited to announce this piece as an honorable mention.

Perspective is an interesting phenomenon. Things can be as big or small as you make them, depending on where you choose to place them. Felix Baumgartner once said before his historic free-fall, “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”

After doing my first solo central line in my 4th year of medical school, my perspective changed dramatically. As a high school student volunteering in the ER, I marveled at the chance to deliver a warm blanket to a patient. Medical students were giants to me, as they obtained histories and presented to the residents. Attendings and residents were gods, who seemed to perform miracles wherever they went. These “God” figures were what I admired about medicine, and were what I always aspired to be.

My advice to any medical student is simple. Study hard and realize that what you are doing outside the hospital is the bedrock of the type of physician you become. Anatomy, while boring, ultimately gave me the knowledge to stick some lateral to a carotid pulse, but medial to a femoral pulse. One thing I did not expect was that medical school would consume my life. All I cared about was medicine, and that was all I talked about. I slowly lost contact with others in my life who were outside of medicine. It just became too hard to relate. Do right by yourself and keep your connections outside of medical school healthy. It could be the difference between a healthy two years, and a major nervous breakdown. Outlets are important, and are the lifeblood of a healthy medical student. Be a well-rounded person. It will help you when it comes time to interact with other people in the hospital. Lastly, I wish I had known one very basic tenant. Do not compare yourself with your classmates. It is always a lose-lose situation. You either make others feel bad, or you end up feeling inferior to your classmates.

Flash forward to interview season. I once again felt the same anxiety that I had when applying to medical school. It was yet another tremendous obstacle in my path to becoming a physician. In the weeks leading up to the match, it felt like the past four years and $250,000 in debt could all be in vain. What if I didn’t match? What would my family think? What would my wife think? Thankfully, I did match, and the celebration commenced. However, there is a much darker side of this process that goes undiscussed. On websites like reddit where students talk honestly in online forums, I saw what happened when my fellow students did not match. I read multiple comments of students who contemplated suicide as an answer to this turn of events. The shock of so many years of hard work resulting in unemployment is too much to bear for many people. In times like this, those with an emotional support system can survive, while those who are alone have a much more difficult time.

All this to point out that medical school is most often different than what you expect as a pre-med. Honestly, it changed my reasons for becoming a doctor. I was initially going into medicine because I wanted to positively impact people’s lives. However, the clinical parts of medical school made me more despondent about this cause. I had to find a new reason to keep me going. My true motivation turned out to be the intellectual challenge that medicine offered. It was the only thing that kept me going, despite all the non-compliant patients and administrative hurdles. Many doctors will say to keep objective at all times to always ensure you are making rational decisions. It is more likely that this was developed as a survival mechanism. What sane human can watch someone die, and then three minutes later walk into another patient’s room with a smile on their face?

My first death was a 25-year-old male who smoked meth while he was recovering from pneumonia. While we worked on him for 25 minutes, I could hear his mother weeping outside. It made a huge impact on me, and ultimately wounded me emotionally. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? However, that experience did not make me stronger. It only left a scar in that part of my heart, which was incapable of feeling that same pain again. The objective and calm doctor is formed by repeated emotional trauma and the scarring that forms after it. The best you can do to survive is to not absorb the true emotional impact of every poor outcome.

The person I am at the end of medical school is much different than the one who came into it four years ago. The point of this essay, as scattered as it was, is to reveal that medical school may not be the experience you expect it to be. While I may not have reached the level of attending yet, I still can confidently say that there is a wide difference between expectations and reality when it comes to the medical school process. Although I have been pessimistic in this story, I still cried tears of joy when I found out I would become an emergency physician. A four-year dream finally realized. Even with all the tribulations and obstacles, I still believe that being a physician is the best job you can do. I still wouldn’t give it up for all the investment banking money in the world.

The author is anonymous, recently-graduated medical student who will begin a residency in Emergency Medicine.

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