Medical Student Perspective: Finding Support in Medical School
I once thought that I was invincible. With my goal set and my books in hand, I went through the trials and tribulations that many pre-medical students have to endure: physics, chemistry, MCAT, biology, and medical school interviews. Most of these prerequisites were put in place to train us how to absorb large quantities of information without showing stress or anxiety. As I walked through the doors on my first day of medical school, I felt my nerves quiver, but I figured that I was sufficiently prepared to overcome whatever hurdle was put in front of me. I had successfully finished 4 years of undergraduate studies and 1 year of graduate training—what could possibly knock me off course?
My boyfriend, Adam, the cornerstone of my life, packed his life in sunny California and moved with me to the tiny town of Norfolk, Virginia. We had heard all about the stresses of medical school and how they often ripped relationships apart and we carefully created safety nets of friends to support usBy the summer of 2009, it appeared that we were going to make it. I had survived the first barrage of exams and countless sleepless nights and our relationship was as strong as ever. Through all of that, our relationship was as strong as ever, and I attributed that success to our mutual support of each other.
When I first met Adam, I knew that I found a diamond in the rough. He was probably one of the smartest and most caring people I have ever known. As we got to know each other, he began to share his experiences with full body pain suggestive of fibromyalgia. I never knew much about the condition until medical school. As the years passed, these pains became more diffuse and increasingly severe, in addition to the chronic migraines he would have up to three times a week. We spent numerous nights during my first year of medical school sitting together on the bathroom floor. I would study and comfort him while he desperately tried to fall asleep to stop the nausea and vomiting. During the mornings between classes (and often during class), we would doctor-shop until we found someone who understood our situation enough to not write off Adam's symptoms. Eventually, we found one.
While I had thought that finding a doctor would lead to better times, I soon realized that it didn't prepare us for the events to come. The next two years became an emotional roller coaster. Adam developed recurrent "pneumonias" that were refractory to antibiotic treatment, a respiratory arrest the day before my pathology final, and a pulmonary embolism that caused a partial right lung infarction a week before Step 1. I found myself overwhelmed trying to juggle my competing obligations as Adam's caretaker and medical student. There were many nights when I just wanted to sit in the corner and cry. But what would that serve? I wouldn't be helping anybody, least of all Adam. So I pushed through.
At the age of 27, Adam had been ill more than anyone else I knew, young or old. I noticed the dimming light in his eye and I knew something had changed. Bad days became more and more frequent. He would spend the entire day in bed sleeping. If I wasn't there begging him to have food, he would go the whole day without eating. During 24-hour calls, I would have to make short trips back home to check on him.
May 5, 2012. I woke up on that Saturday and began my morning routine before I went back to the bedroom to say good morning. We quickly touched base about the movie we were going to watch that evening, and I left the door closed to let him get more shuteye. I went ahead and made breakfast and settled in for a nap on the couch. When I woke up, I noticed that the bedroom door was cracked and saw light coming from under the bathroom door. The house seemed abnormally quiet. A shiver went down my spine and I called his name without answer. I called again and knocked on the bathroom door. No sound. I opened the door.
He was lying on the floor with a note beside him. No amount of CPR, no amount of crying, no amount of "I'm so sorry" was going to change the fact that he was gone. I knew that it was depression that took him. Luckily I was not alone for long. Before I knew what was happening friends, family and professors all jumped in to help and never gave up on me. Without their support I would have never been able to make it through that devastating time. I have survived and am proud to finishing up my fourth year of medical school.
So, what was the message I wanted to convey? I guess that it's that we often set ourselves up for the academic workload of medical school through an immense amount of mind and body preparation. That's the easy part. We often fail to recognize that life goes on, and at some point it may overwhelm us. It's our Type A personality traits that lead many of us to feel that we can brave it alone. If I could go back and share with my younger self the things I know now, I would have told him to brace for the unexpected and seek out resources early. Things will happen whether you expect them to or not, and it is better to be prepared. Above all, my experiences have shown that the origin of strength is not entirely from within. It is in fact a collective effort from classmates, family, and faculty that ensures that we all achieve our goal.
Eric Chow, MS, MPH