I don’t think there’s anything that anyone could have said to really get me to understand the magnitude of my decision to attend medical school. To me, medical school was a glimmering future, this far-attainable goal that I had been striving toward for as long as I could remember. All I had to do was get in, and, once I did, I didn’t quite understand the long road ahead of me. The tough part was just beginning. Could it really be that much more difficult than undergrad? Sure, it was hard for some people, but those people weren’t me. I did my undergraduate degree at a prestigious and rigorous school, known for producing top-notch medical school applicants. I held the high opinion of myself that what I lacked in natural smarts, I made up for in excessive hard work and passion for the material. No one could work harder than I; it just wasn’t possible. I couldn’t wait to spend all of my time learning about diseases and how the body works. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but nothing that I couldn’t handle, because, of course, I was me.
The first month of anatomy kicked the confidence right out of me. A few people in my anatomy group were gunners, an affectionate term for hardcore medical school students that made my type A personality look like it was type Z. Everyone seemed to be getting it, except me. They pointed out minute structures on the cadaver like they were reciting their ABCs. Was I the only one who thought that scaphoid, lunate, triquetral, pisiform, hamate, trapezoid, and trapezium were made-up names for shapes and could not eloquently list off all of the bones in the hand right after lecture? No matter how long I stared at histology slides, the blurred pink and purple blobs all looked alike to me. My first exam consisted of 2 hours of rigorous multiple-choice questions, followed by 2 hours of histology identifications, and finally 2 hours of naming tagged structures on a room full of cadavers. How strange it was to walk around a room full of dead bodies as I perched, squatted, and contorted my body in many unnatural ways performing the "anatomy dance" to get just as close to that tagged body part as possible. The humanity in medicine seemed like some fleeting concept as I rushed from cadaver to cadaver, more concerned with not failing anatomy than appreciating the great gift and sacrifice that each donor had provided. I reeked constantly of formaldehyde, my hair balanced atop my head in a messy bun, and my cheerful demeanor quickly faded into merely trying to survive each day. My life balance was out of the window. Everyone seemed to stress me out, and I was not very fun to be around.
But after that first exam, I decided to change. I couldn’t take 4 whole years of going through life passively trying to survive. Medical school was a privilege, one that I had only dreamed that I would be able to experience. Where did that girl go who approached the world with such blind optimism and found joy in even the most mundane aspects of daily life? I made the oh-so-controversial decision to spend less time studying and more time fueling my passion and love for people. After all, this is what had gotten me to pursue medicine in the first place. I spent as many hours volunteering and shadowing in the hospital as time permitted. Trust me, nothing puts life into perspective more than taking a 2-hour break to play with a 9-month-old sick little girl who desires nothing more from you than a sweet voice and a cuddle. Excessive worry about an upcoming exam seemed silly and selfish. Once I donned the honor of the white coat, I was able to see patients once a week and actually interview them. Suddenly, all of the toil and hard work seemed such a small price to pay for the incredible honor of being given a window into someone’s life. I felt humbled by my patients’ journeys and learned of the incredible people whom I would be serving for the rest of my career. Each patient inspired me differently with his or her story, and I rode the high of my days with patients for the rest of the week. I gained far more from each patient than I ever could have imagined. Medicine was fun again.
I am happy to report that I spend most of my day smiling. Whether I am commiserating with my fellow classmates in a study-induced state of delirium or reading a story to a sick child, I find a reason to laugh and a time to be cherished. My biggest obstacle in medical school turned out to be me. As medical students, we have the incredible power to see and seek out all of the beautiful opportunities in medical school that are at our fingertips. It is within our control to find those activities that remind us what makes the material applicable and interesting, to seek out shadowing opportunities to apply our knowledge, and to spend as much time sharing our passion and energy with those around us. In medical school, I was presented with a choice. I could focus on the hard parts—the competitive nature, the gunners, and all of the pieces of stress that come with trying to plan the rest of my life—or I could discover the joy in medicine. I am truly happy to wake up each day, attend class, and learn something new and fascinating. Yet, for me, it is equally important to step away from the library and recharge myself with all of those parts of medicine that can’t be found in the textbook, as our patients, after all, are what really matter.