Another entry into the Med School Memoirs series. Wrote this yesterday. Haven’t edited it and don’t know if it’ll make the book I’m feeling good right now so I’m posting it. Enjoy.
Smell the Roses.
I skimmed my book with a blue sharpie pen in hand while he muttered notes from the morning’s final operation into the Dragon speech recognition microphone. Occasionally he’d pause and say something and I’d perk up and look at him as if he were speaking to me only to realize he’d just resumed dictating his post-op notes. After multiple rounds of this “is he speaking to me or the computer” game, his head turned towards me. I closed my book and looked up at him. This was the real deal. He asked, haven’t you finished that book yet?
Yes, I said. I’m just going through it again. I want to make sure I learn as much as possible before my audition rotations.
Put it away, he said. Let’s get some lunch. He stood up from his computer and I followed him down the hospital corridor. He pulled his surgical mask from his neck and threw it in the trash. I did the same. You’re smart and you work hard, he continued. You’re going to make it.
Thanks doc, I replied. I just… it’s stressful, you know? I feel like time’s flying.
He nodded and continued walking without a reply. His lack of response made me wonder if what I said had sounded stupid to him. I cared what he thought about me, which led me to overthink many of the things I said to him. He was an intelligent and accomplished surgeon, which is what I hope to be. Some day.
We walked side by side; I was on the left and he was on the right. He turned left into me towards the stairwell door and we did that awkward thing where you’re in someone’s way and you have a western gun draw about which way you should move to actually get out of the way. That’s the thing about being a med student; you’re either in the way or invisible. Today I was in the way.
I followed him down the stairs and into the cafeteria. He walked up to the counter and fingered through the menu options before grabbing a pre-made caesar wrap and walking to the register. The woman working the cafeteria kitchen greeted me: Hi Jordan, what can I do for you today?
Hi Karen, how are you today? I replied. May I have the turkey club? She obliged and crafted my sandwich.
I sat down in the lounge with Dr. P, who was sporting a healthy bronze suntan which contrasted his greying hair. He had recently returned from a vacation out west. He took a bite of his wrap and looked up at me. He said, you really just want to graduate and be done with this, don’t you?
I paused for a moment before saying yes.
Remember your first day of med school? he asked. Remember the stress of your first exam? Remember how nervous you probably felt suturing the first time in front of residents?
I thoughtfully nodded, briefly reminiscing on those milestones, as haphazard and clueless as they were.
You want to be in my position, don’t you?
It was true. I admired Dr. P. He was an accomplished and proficient surgeon in the field I dream of matching into. He trained at a prestigious institution. He was intelligent, skilled, and had incredible patient manner. He drove a luxury car; my 2007 Toyota was sporting a brand new dent. He made difficult procedures look effortless. “Anybody can be a surgeon”, he’d tell me. “But the surgeons who know every single thing that can possibly go wrong in an operation, and know exactly how to fix it; that’s a good surgeon – a surgeon’s surgeon”. I want to be that surgeon someday. While I soaked up all of his lessons on medicine and surgery, he often gifted me advice that the innocence and naivety of youth couldn’t afford me – the type of advice that only comes through decades of life experience. I hung on his every word. So yes, while sitting in the physician’s lounge munching on that turkey club sandwich in my third year of medical school, I absolutely wanted nothing more than to be in his position.
Yes, I said. I can’t wait til’ I’m there.
He slowly turned his head from left to right, indicating that I’d given the incorrect answer. That’s the problem with you, he said. You enter medical school and you can’t wait until those four years are over. Can’t wait til’ you’re done with anatomy lab. Can’t wait til’ you’re done with boards. Can’t wait til’ you’re done with rotations. Can’t wait til’ you graduate. Can’t wait to start residency.
He paused to take another bite of his sandwich before continuing: Then you say, “I can’t wait until residency is over in five years”. Congratulations, you’ve just wished away ten years of your life. Now you’re a doctor, finally. You’re responsible for the lives and wellbeing of your patients. You can’t have off days. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, even if I seem cynical somedays. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, other than maybe hiking in Zion. But damn, Jordan. You know, I’d do anything to go back and start med school again. You don’t realize how good you have it right now. Med school, residency… those were some of the best years of my life.
He took a sip of his water as I waited on his next words. I mean, look at you, he continued. You have no real responsibilities. You’re young. You’re single. You went to Chicago last weekend for St. Patrick’s day and did god knows what. I’m jealous of you. You have your whole life to be a doctor. The world is your playground, man. Why would you want to wish away these years?
I don’t know, I said. I guess I don’t. I just want to know where I’m going. I want to know that I’ve matched and secured a residency spot. It’s the uncertainty of it all. It’s stressful.
Look, I get that, he said. But you’re going to make it. Trust me. You work hard and you’re smart and most importantly, people like being around you. At the end of the day they want to see that you’re capable of being trained and that you’re a cool person.
Thank you Dr. P, I said. I appreciate that – seriously.
Yeah. Anyways, he continued, if you had a crystal ball and could see into the future and know for sure you’ll match, how would that change things?
I wouldn’t be as stressed, I said. I think I’d enjoy things more.
Exactly, he said. Well I’m your crystal ball and I’m telling you, that’s what’s going to happen. So take a deep breath and enjoy yourself. Wake up and smell the damn roses. I bet you miss college sometimes, don’t you?
Yes sir, I replied.
You were stressed back then about getting good grades and fluffing up your application so you could get into medical school. But when you look back, you realize how easy you had it. You realize how fun it was. And most importantly, you realize you can never go back. No matter how bad you wish you could relive those years, you will never be 21 again sitting on your friends porch on campus drinking cheap keg beer without a worry in the world. It’s over. And someday you’ll look back on this and miss being 25 or however old you are. And someday, when you’re old like me, you’ll realize the journey was the best part.
He took one last sip of his water and stood up to throw the remnants of his lunch in the trashcan. I sat at the table.
Memories pierced my mind like a barrage of steel-tipped arrows. Limbic system wrapped in a warm blanket of nostalgia. I remember…
The awkwardness of orientation. The overwhelming confusion when it came time to study for that first exam. Those long loathsome hours spent carving up cadavers in the anatomy lab. The candy-coated bliss of those first year post-exam celebrations. That time during first year when you went to shadow a surgeon and got laughed at by the entire O.R. for replying “medium or large” when asked your glove size before scrubbing in for the first time. The crushing emptiness of that death or breakup that leaves you feeling like the world has collapsed around you. The neurotic anxiety of devoting every ounce of your soul to beating one test. The euphoria that makes you want to cry when you do beat it. All those months and weeks and days and hours of sitting alone inside your apartment studying in isolation. The warm hugs you give your loved ones the first time you see them after a drought. Those weekends spent studying, looking outside your window at all the people having fun like a dog in its cage, checking social medias and feeling like the world is having a party and you weren’t invited. The belly laughs from the heart that overwhelm you with joy when you blow off studying for a weekend to visit your friends. The early clinical days that make you feel like an incompetent fool incapable of ever becoming a trusted physician. Those moments later in the year when you look back at how much you’ve learned and progressed and you realize that you’re actually going to be a great doctor someday. Sitting down in the hospital cafeteria for breakfast half-asleep after a wild overnight E.R. shift. Smiling like an idiot under your surgical mask the first time a surgeon unexpectedly hands you the scalpel to make the first cut in an operation. That day you get in your car to drive home from a rotation and realize you’ve found the one – the specialty you’ll propose to during fourth year and spend the rest of your life with.
The moment you come to the realization that no matter how stressful and exhausting and confusing it may be, the journey is beautiful. These are the best days of your life. Not the youthful college years of carefree splendor. Not the day you finish residency and start practicing medicine. These years, as a broke med student just trying to figure it out; these are the good days. The first time you were complimented on your patient presentation. The first time you get a smile and a laugh out of a depressed teen in an inpatient psych facility after a suicide attempt. The first time you successfully closed a surgical wound. The first time a patient went out of their way to tell your attending that you are going to be a great doctor. The first time a small child walks up to your leg and hugs you at your waist before they leave the office. The first time you actually suggest a thoughtful diagnosis that no one else had considered.
When you’re a child you crawl then you walk then you grow up and you can run and sprint. But the first steps you took as a infant are the ones you wish you could watch again. You can now use your voice to give a speech or a presentation to a room full of people. But the first words you babbled as a baby are the most special. One day when you’re forty or fifty you’ll wish you could pull up videos and watch yourself fumbling through all the haphazardly hilarious medical school experiences and laugh at yourself with a glass of wine in hand. One day seeing patients and prescribing medications and operating will be routine, and you will embrace that when it comes. But these firsts – these are some of the most beautiful moments of your career.
And for the first time since this journey began, instead of wanting this phase to be over, you find yourself sitting in a hospital cafeteria wishing that time would slow down.
For all things medical school, including advice, musings, and stories like these, check out my Med School page.
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