Notes from a Medical Student

Finding Your Balance

“Medical school will test you. Not your intelligence, but your ability to adapt and grow.”

This is what a great friend and mentor told me just two years ago as we sat on her front porch enjoying one of the last warm days of the season. I don't think I understood what she was telling me at the time. Now I often wonder how she could have been so perceptive.

Most people will tell you medical school is hard. It is, but not in the way that I would have expected. Oh, yes, there are mountains of material to learn in blocks of time that always seem too short, and with each class I develop a new appreciation for the human brain's capacity. But we are medical students, and there is not a single one of us who doesn't know how to study.

What is it, then, that makes this life experience so challenging to navigate?

I think it can be summed up by a comment a friend of mine made when he saw me reading a book about South Asian History.

"How can you do that?" he said. "I would be scared to read something outside med school right now. I don't have room for anything else in my head!"

Unlike college, where most programs strive to create a well-rounded individual, medical school focuses entirely on the cause, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. Once, you could switch gears from studying calculus to completing an art project or writing a paper for a political science class. Now, everything that is not studying medicine you do while haunted, in the back or your mind, by the unending list of things you still don't know. Med school can't be left at the office. Relationships and hobbies go on the back burner, and major world events often don't even show up on your radar. When a friend asks, "What did you think of Palin in the debate?" you might distractedly reply, “What debate?”

The result is a day-to-day struggle to find balance. You start to think about where you can fit in a couple extra study hours. Should you really go to the gym? To that lecture on “Women in Shakespeare”? To church? Slowly, the events on your calendar become less and less diverse, until all that is left is one word at the top of each day: Study.

A few weeks into my first year, I called my mentor, full of frustration. She asked me one question: “Jackie, before you started medical school, why did you think you would be successful as a doctor?”

“Because I am good at relating to people. They trust me,” I said.

“How do you relate to people?”

“I don't know. I guess I talk to them.”

“What do you talk about? The latest drug to treat seizures, or the new home-testing kits for HIV?”

Right then, I saw what she wanted me to. I thought back to all my experiences with physicians and patients. I realized that the doctors I chose for my own health care were all ones I felt a connection to, based on a shared love of India or traveling, urban renewal, or even religious studies. All this time, I had failed to see that being a doctor is more than just being a pro at pathology. It's about creating relationships with patients. And that requires nurturing the part of a person that grows and develops outside of medical school.

All of us have had the experience of sitting in a white gown, uncomfortably exposed while a doctor talks AT us instead of to us. There is perhaps no more isolating feeling than dealing with a doctor with no empathy, with a poor bedside manner-a one-dimensional pseudo-person. But it's clear to me how doctors can become that way, how easy it can be for aspiring young physicians to get trapped into thinking the only thing that matters is their score on the next exam, and to let all the other great facets of their personalities slowly slip away. Part of the challenge of medical school is in not allowing that to happen to you.

I am lucky to have trusted friends and advisors outside the realm of medicine who help me maintain a healthy perspective, for the most part. With their help and my own commitment, I may turn out to be the kind of person and doctor I've always hoped to become.