Pardon me as I try to work through some thoughts. I am on a travel hiatus for the foreseeable future. My heart ached as I typed that sentence out. As if writing it down somehow made it more true, more tangible, more real than reality. I miss the mountains–the fresh air, the sunsets and sunrises, the horizons. I miss the delight of being on my feet for 12 hours a day hiking up and down trails. Of earning an expansive view of miles of nature in all directions. Yes, I even miss the difficult parts, like ice on the trails and achy feet.
But here I am, in my third week of medical school. Honestly, I had a panic attack on my second day of orientation. It was a combination of all the presentations and the students around me. We kept being told how medicine will “transform you” and how we will have to give up so much of what we love (but will also gain a rewarding career) and how these next several (many) years will be so tough. How we’ll never be lay people again. How we’ll always be doctors and how our main identifier will be “doctor.” How our entire identity will morph around that one word. And that scared me nearly to death. I don’t want to lose “parts of my soul” as one presenter put it. I don’t want to lose my love for mountains, my enthusiasm for the ocean and diving, my love of classical music and piano and cello, my joy in running, my interest in coding and building stuff. I don’t want to lose my joy in general. We were told so many things during orientation. How physicians have to go through so much. How they see so much suffering, sickness, tragedy, and death. How they face these existential questions throughout their career. And then they told us about the problems we might face ourselves as we go through this process of transformation: substance abuse, anxiety, depression, suicide. They told us at orientation that physicians have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. At orientation!! I understand the school is just trying to prepare us so that we can look for warning signs, but that’s not how I’d choose to welcome new students.
So my panic attack. I cried every night I came home from orientation. I cried because I felt trapped. I was scared that I had picked the wrong profession. We were told so many times that becoming a doctor is a calling. Was I–am I–in the wrong place because I didn’t necessarily “hear” or “feel” the calling that seemingly all my classmates heard? Most times it feels as though the only thing my heart calls for is altitude and solitude in nature. The presentations were so heavy and my heart yearns for lightness. One presenter showed a quote:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. -EB White
and all I could think was, “but my heart isn’t torn. I want to enjoy the world!” But once that thought entered and faded, I was left with another thought. “I am so selfish.” Which makes me sad and ashamed.
So what’s been getting me out of this funk? Well, my family, Angela, and Week on the Wards.
Our second week, they sent us off in pairs to do advanced shadowing, or as they call it, “Week on the Wards.” Another student and I were placed on a Medicine team at Grady hospital and we shadowed the M3s, interns, and the attending on their rounds. We also got to help out with taking history of present illnesses, listen to hearts and lungs with stethoscopes, and (the greatest joy) just talk to patients. It hasn’t completely dislodged my discomfort in hanging up my backpack and boots, but it was a nice reminder to why I was (am) here.
I met a patient last week who was one of the sweetest people I have ever met. She came in with shortness of breath. As she spoke, she radiated love and kindness. She spoke of her daughter and granddaughter, her son, and her husband. She said, “I wish everyone was blessed with what I have.” She spoke of how lucky she is to have such a wonderful family. She spoke of how we should share our blessings with those who are less fortunate. She spoke of wanting to comfort the patient in the bed next to her because that patient didn’t have any visitors. She had lost 15 pounds in the previous 6 months and her slight frame stood at 100 pounds max. She had extremely elevated platelet counts. The attending thought it might be leukemia, but hadn’t yet done tests or mentioned his concern. This little lady radiated love for all those around her and she had not a single clue that she was probably in the last years/months/weeks/days of her life. My heart was both broken and full at the same time. She’s a living, breathing example of what it means to be a good person and she’s a living, breathing human with an end closer in sight than she probably imagined. I don’t know what has happened to her. I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask because of HIPPA rules and no longer shadowing the team taking care of her. Her unfinished story is like a golden thread trailing off in my mind with no clear end. But her warmth and well-wishes for the other people suffering in the hospital around her reminded me why I’m here. Because I won’t have to just “wish” or “pray” for people anymore. I can also think and do.
So now I’m at the beginning of my third week. I’m at a better place than I was two weeks ago. But now I have new fears. I’m afraid I will lose compassion along the way. I’m afraid that in an effort to emotionally separate myself from patients, I will accidentally become too separate. I’m afraid I will become someone who sees a patient as just another number. Another checkbox to complete before dinner. Another checkbox to fill in before going home to my family. I’m afraid I won’t have a family because of all the time I spend on this career. I’m afraid if I don’t spend all my time on this career, I will be incompetent. I’m afraid I won’t be able to find a balance. How does one find the balance? And of course, I’m afraid of I won’t have mountain time or diving time or cello time or running time or bricolage time or reading time… Of losing my interests and my personality to this profession. Of losing myself. I’m afraid of a lot of these things but the only thing to do right now is to take it one step at a time. To keep going. And to remember how many blessings I have in my own life and to share those joy and blessings with everyone around me. Because despite all these fears, I am a lucky girl. Luckier than I acknowledge most days. And I think of the patient in the hospital. How her beating heart is one of pure gold. And for now, that’s enough a reminder to strive to be like her.