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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
Eastern Virginia Medical School
Class of 2013
February 2013 Issue of IMpact
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