Saturday, June 1, 2013

Medical School Without a Doubt

"Regrets, Eric, that you're not down there with them?"

" doubts, though."

These words pass between coach Sandy McGrath and runner Eric Liddell in the film Chariots of Fire (1981).  Sitting in the stands, they're watching the 1924 Olympics event in which Liddel refused to participate because it was held on Sunday. 

As you may recall, Liddell was firm in his religious convictions, including keeping Sunday as the Lord's day. Adherence to his beliefs brought him into conflict with the Olympic Committee whose members found it incredible anyone would place God above King and Country. Seeing his teammates run without him, he wishes he was among them -- even with strong convictions, he's still human -- but it's a wish unaccompanied by doubt. In his final race, a competitor says of him, "He has something to prove. Something personal. Something guys like (our) coach would never understand in a million years."

Probably the second most common question I get about attending medical school at my age relates to whether I have any regrets about my decision. "Now that you're here, has medical school lived up to your expectations? Would you do it again, knowing what you know now? Is the pursuit and presumed attainment of a dream everything it's cracked up to be?"

Truthfully, it depends on the dreamer. For me, it certainly has been, and continues to be, as fulfilling as I hoped it would be, and in ways I couldn't have imagined what seems like a lifetime ago. In part, this is because I haven't been aiming at achieving a distant goal nearly as much as I've been engaged in a daily process of achievement. 

Life is a terminal illness for everyone and waiting to live is folly. Sure, like the rest of my classmates, I can hardly wait for the day I get my first paycheck as an attending physician, but delaying enjoyment of what I'm doing until then is like carrying a dream around in a bucket that has a hole in it. You wake up one morning to find your dream has dribbled away when you weren't looking.

This is why I try to take every day as another chance to work at being a doctor, even one in training, though may I forget, as we all do. Distracted by a mistake or worried about my performance, I stumble over my own frailty, and then a nurse asks me what she should do next or a patient smiles after we've discussed her upcoming procedure and I remember. Doctor is who we are on the inside, long before our names are punctuated by the initials D.O. or M.D. on our white coats.

Would I do it over again, knowing what I know now? I've probably answered that one already, but let's just say a person can arrive at the point where living authentically is more important than playing it safe. You bet I'd do it again, though, with the virtue of hindsight, there are a few things I'd do differently along the way. For instance, I'd make the acquaintance of Francis Ihejirika, MD, much sooner. Francis is the founder of the PASS Program in Champaign, Ill., and even more than successfully preparing me for board exams, he taught me how to think as a medical clinician. Eight weeks of being challenged, encouraged, patted on the back and kicked in the pants were life changing. "Thank you" is scarcely enough.

I'd also be less afraid, if that's possible and maybe it isn't when you're trying to swim against fifty-foot waves that drown the biggest ships as though they were the tiniest toys. But that's what medical school can seem like. We start out feeling vulnerable -- much like we do in those crazy dreams where we're naked and everyone else isn't. You've had those, too, huh? Funny how I never manage to have Daniel Craig's physique (Casino Royale, 2006), despite what Freud said about dreams representing wish fulfillment. Anyway, we end up finding out the individuals we thought were the smartest, the most gifted, and presumably, the most invulnerable, have have been battered by the waves, too. 

Medical school is a huge undertaking; it's the hugest thing most of us have ever attempted. I can't stress this enough. Honesty forbids me from coloring this truth in anything but black and white. Nothing I know of can adequately prepare a person for the volume of material they're going to face, the hurricane force at which it strikes, or the feelings of aloneness that surface in the wee hours before exams. It's something you have to experience to know. But looking back, I can see how I've grown in the confidence surviving brings and without a doubt, I'm braver because of it.

(Creative Commons image of Eric Liddell via Wikipedia)
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