On my first day of clinical placement, I met a patient who was going to die. I found myself speechless. What do you say to a patient resigned to his own fate? To a patient with rapid-onset cancer and for whom living months longer than his prognosis is his achievement? Are there words for such a situation?
On my second day of clinical placement, the intern I was with made a MET call for a patient. I remember standing there, staring at the patient and the intern and the nurse and the ICU staff who hurried around him, taking notes and calling out words and terms I didn’t understand.
This is what makes med scool very lonely at times. There are so few people who understand what is involved being in a hospital setting, and fewer still to whom we can talk to about all the crazy that happens out on the wards. Our experiences are rarely shared and often difficult to articulate—how do you explain to someone how it felt to watch another human being struggle for their life? How it felt to be confronted by a patient with the same barriers to living as you experience each day?
But I think, most of all, we make med school lonely for ourselves. The business of medicine is a very small company. The friends you make to day are your future colleagues, the registrars your future consultants. We don’t want to show weakness. We’re afraid that, when we apply for internships and fellowships, someone will remember us and judge us, deny us a placement because they know us as the girl who couldn’t cope or the boy afraid to try.
Two months ago, I wanted nothing to do with medicine—I wanted nothing to do with life. It’s frightening, how easy it was to give up, to sink into my own loneliness, to hide from any form of companionship.
The hardest thing to come to terms with is that I wanted to end it all, and how close I came to that edge. I skipped out on clerking patients to go to the pharmacy and stare at the pills and potions, having given up on my own life. I glared at train tracks, trying to come up with a way of dividing my existence into reasons to continue and reasons to throw myself in front of the train.
I felt completely alone. I came to the conclusion that there was no one to talk to, because if I did, I’d jeopardise my entire future. And besides, everyone else was doing just fine—I should be coping as well. I was a failure.
I was wrong.
I broke down to my clinical supervisor and she broke it down for me: this is what you’re going to do to get your life back on track. This is what is going to happen next. I’m going to keep you on track and you’re not alone.
I told my colleagues what was going on. It turns out that I’m not the only one who feels alone and as if I’m not going to make it. I’m not the only one afraid my tutors think I’m an absolute idiot and I’m not the only one that feels this mountain is insurmountable.
Med school is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Reach out to your seniors, to your peers, to your colleagues. Med school can be amazing, but it’s not worth losing everything for, it’s not everything you are, and it’s not about suffering.
Firstly, let’s play homage to the ultimate cliche—I have referenced the Scrubs theme song in a post about med school.
Med school is competitive. You’re ranked according to your performance. You’re constantly compared to your colleagues and studying becomes a matter of keeping up with the standards rather than learning medicine because you want to be a good doctor or because the magical ways in which the heart works fascinates you.
And then there’s that voice. You know the one. The one that tells you that you shouldn’t need anyone’s help. That you’re weak and pathetic and stupid for asking your colleagues questions or not knowing the answer to the consultant’s question regarding Charcot’s triad (fever, RUQ pain and jaundice for ascending cholangitis).
Today, I had a clinical exam. I aced it. And it’s not because I’m a particularly good med student. (I spend way too much time on tumblr, for starters.) I did well because I have amazing colleagues who took the time to push me to the next level. Colleagues who gave me feedback and tips for improvement and lots of compliments and let me examine their lungs ten times a week.
Medicine’s a team sport, from med school all the way up to clinical practice. Think about it: ward rounds are four or five doctors discussing cases with one another. Research papers are never written by just one doctor. Surgery consists of anaethetists and many surgeons tolerating one another long enough to save a life (or remove a lesion).
And honestly? Studying for hours is boring when you’re all alone, and I’m yet to see anyone perform an adequate gastrointestinal exam on themselves (I’ve tried). The only way to survive med school is by embracing your colleagues and siphoning their knowledge while willingly sharing your own. Ignore the voice that tells you to be competitive and that you should be capable of making it through all alone and that you shouldn’t need help.
Don’t be afraid to show your weaknesses to your colleagues. You’re not a superhero, and neither are they—we’re all med students, we’re all struggling, but to quote High School Musical, we’re all in this together.