On day one, you're brimming with excitement, surrounded by a hundred plus classmates starting a similar journey, and can't wait to meet your first patient. By day ninety, your eyes can't stay open, classmates file into a dozen different study rooms after class, and the phone buzzes with a message reminding you to eat from your worried parents. Medical students often see some magnitude of this happening around them, or to them, and sometimes the transition is a silent one. Then, there comes the various approaches to transitioning to wards. Where do personal relationships fit in?
Simply put, the best advice I can give for relationships in medical school is to really have them. By "really," I mean honestly putting your heart into them. I'm not solely referring to significant others and romantic relationships. Those are often foremost in our attention. I'm referring to all of your personal relationships. Your family and close friends will understand if they're put in the back seat, or if the quality of your exchanges changes. True bonds are difficult to break. However, for that reason alone, they deserve more of you.
The new relationships you make in medical school are exciting. Your classmates will be some of your best friends as well as the first people in the medical world you will call colleagues. In this way, they are the first bridge to your professional life as a physician. Whatever your approach, I think these new relationships deserve significant effort. They will help make you a better doctor.
Time is too short. I don't mean that philosophically (well, maybe a little) but as a practical concern that becomes all the more real as we go through medical school and continue through residency. Why is there never enough!? Relationships might seem to be a burden from this perspective, but I'd argue they're actually a blessing. Relationships force you to learn to balance your time. Embrace your family and old friends somewhat regularly because, as I mentioned, they deserve it. Spending time with your new peers or significant other is needed to build these relationships. Having commitments to others requires planning and foresight, which are invaluable skills for a physician. It doesn't get easier down the road. The needs of your patients will come first, and the better you can balance life and work at this stage, the better you will do in the next.
What do I want to do after twelve hours in the hospital and one at the gym on a weekday? I want to watch The Walking Dead over dinner with my roommate, who is also a classmate, or see Parks and Recreation with my girlfriend. As much as I might love the shows, truthfully, I watch because of the individuals watching with me. They are my biggest sources of support and comfort through this stage of the adventure. Your immediate support structure changes in medical school, which might be due to physical distance or how abstract the world of medicine can be to outsiders. A combination of old and new relationships forms the foundation of a new support system that will help you succeed.
When we hit the wards for the first time, many of us cannot help but want to learn everything possible from every patient encounter. "It's why we're here," we tell ourselves. However, going from the books to the floor can be a bit bumpy. Learning what drives others, what they care about, and what worries them is not simple, but it is also not unique to patient encounters. Getting to know someone is a skill developed over time and through experience. It can be a first date, a new classmate, or a complete stranger. Along with interpersonal skills, you develop insight into the vast differences in people's beliefs and goals. I have learned from friends struggling with breakups, depression, financial troubles, or who have family members with cancer. The appreciation for someone else's perspective or life situation carries over into a clinical context, especially when you can draw parallels at the same time.
By learning about others we come to learn about ourselves. I have learned much more about myself through my relationships during medical school. Relationships help you to reflect on your intense medical school experiences and promote self-knowledge. They can tap into emotions of happiness, gratitude, jealousy, and vulnerability. They can break your heart. Discovering what you really want out of your medical career takes knowing yourself. Your emotional bandwidth may be challenged when you find yourself attempting to save a struggling romantic relationship and comforting the father of a 5-year-old who just found out he has adrenocortical carcinoma. Relationships help you reflect on a personal level, making your compassion more human, and develop the values you will rely on during your career. Surely, you will learn the most from your patients, but patients need someone with whom they can relate.
The best advice I can give for relationships in medical school is to really have them. I'm bringing an existential viewpoint to a traditionally systematic and academic field, but I have found most medical students tend to agree. Don't wait for when you are less busy and have time to focus on others. Your profession is focusing on others. Have meaningful ones now, and not half-heartedly, during your formative years of training because relationships in medical school will make you a better doctor—even through day one thousand, three hundred sixty-nine.
Hiten D. Patel, MPH
Back to September 2013 Issue of IMpact