Struggling with the idea of leaving for medical school

The lines of text on my laptop screen blurred together as I lost focus.  I knew there was at least one error on my medical school re-application I would regret later on.  My eyes scanned the familiar body of words but failed to connect the information to my brain.  Frustrated, I closed the application and shut my computer off.

My bedroom door abruptly swung open, revealing my mother with the phone in her hand.  I motioned with my hands, asking who was on the line.  My mom shrugged as she tossed me the phone.  On the digital display, my stomach dropped as I saw the shortened name of one of the schools that waitlisted me.  I put the receiver to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Imraan?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“I just wanted to call you with some good news.  Congratulations Mr. Allarakhia, you’re in.”

The voice on the line pronounced my rough last name fluidly, like it had been practicing before the phone call.   I was suspicious.  This could be a prank – there was no way all of my bullshit update letters actually worked.

“Wait.  Are you serious?”

I could hear my two cockatiels making noise from their cage on the deck outside, just below my open bedroom window.  Slightly irritated, I shut the window with my free hand.  I always wondered how crazy I sounded on the phone with my birds constantly making noise in the background.

The voice expected this reaction.  “Yes, I’m serious”.

This was unreal.  “Yo, um,” I paused for a second and mentally shifted my vernacular.  I restarted my sentence.  “Will I get a confirmation of my acceptance?”

“Your status will update via email.  Congratulations again.  Enjoy your day.”

I thanked the voice and hung up the phone.  At this point, my parents had crept into the room and stood just a few feet away from me.  My mother immediately wrapped me in a hug with tears in her eyes like I was a baby who just uttered its first word.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my father smiling about my future for the first time in a long while.

My entire outlook changed in an instant.  I was beaten to the ground before this phone call.  During the past school year, I traveled through snowstorms, crashed on the floors of inviting medical students, and missed days of required class to attend interviews.  I neurotically checked my Blackberry for rejection emails.   Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would wake up to a blinking red light and frantically check my phone, only to read spam from adult websites.  The day for waitlist movement arrived and passed, and I eventually accepted that no schools would offer me admission.

Now, life was different.  In the midst of courting the means to my desired ends, I brushed aside how quickly the next stage arrived.   I started realizing that I spent the last year preparing for something I knew very little about experiencing.  People would trust me in a few years with their health, rely on me for emotional stability, and expect the highest level of performance on any given day.  Even though I built a strong background in the sciences, I still worked on figuring out my own views and aspirations in life, and constantly reworked my ideas about the world.  I finished college with drastically different views on many subjects, and I anticipated even greater changes elicited by the trials of medical school.

The happiness accenting my life slowly faded just a few days after achieving my acceptance.  Before the phone call, I had resigned myself to enjoying a year off from school and tying up the loose ends in my life.  I had comfortably given up all hope of gaining admission and focused most of my time on planning my year at home.  All of a sudden, I was starting medical school in a few months.  I felt grateful for the opportunity, but at the same time, stressed about moving alone to a new city and adjusting to studying harder than I ever had in my entire life.

As I struggled with the idea of leaving for medical school, I began comparing my level of maturity to that of my own parents at my age.  My father studied medicine in the jungles of Nigeria to serve the jungles of Detroit.  While in medical school, he mastered material with unparalleled dedication.  I recently viewed pictures from his graduation – none of his family members could afford to attend.  My mother, an immigrant from Tanzania, raised two children, one of which was premature, while my father finished his residency in Pittsburgh.  At the moment, my greatest worries included the off-season moves of the Detroit Lions.  The day of the acceptance phone call, I rolled out of bed at two in the afternoon and sheepishly watched Sports Center while my mom made me breakfast.  I wasn’t ready to move forward yet.

Time blurred as I prepared to move away.  The closer I moved towards my departure, the more reasons I found to stay at home.  My mind spun with troubling issues that I never considered before – like leaving my friends, finding housing last minute, and adjusting to life away from home.  I mechanically reassured myself that I was ready and qualified to move ahead with my education.

Months after my initiation into medical school, I found myself seated in another small-groups session for one of my doctoring classes.  Just thirty minutes into the session, my mind wandered.  I folded the rectangular piece of notebook paper in front of me into a triangle.  Next, I tore away the remaining rectangular piece.  Perfect.  I looked up from my work and focused on the instructor.

“So can anyone else offer any other reasons why a culture of perfectionism might detract from medical practice?”  I was bored out of my mind.  I briefly scanned the portraits of old men on the monochromatic walls of the classroom.  They seemed alive, sneering, and questioning my passion for medicine.  I remembered how awkward and baggy the white coat seemed on my shoulders.  Every time I put it on, I felt like a child wearing my older brother’s used and oversized clothes.

My peripheral thoughts suddenly scattered, allowing my attention to revisit the now square-shaped piece of paper on the table.  Back to work.  This paper could become a boat, or a hat, or even an inflatable ball.   After a few minutes of deliberation and analysis, I chose the inflatable ball, the pride of my origami training from elementary school.  As I made the necessary folds, I smiled and wondered what I was doing with my life.

Imraan Allarakhia is a medical student. This post originally appeared in The Doctor Weighs In

It was written as part of a narrative medicine curriculum at Georgetown University School of Medicine, taught by Margaret Cary, MD. Her students’ stories reflect the depths and the heights of medical school; most importantly, the stories reflect the magic and wonder of becoming physicians.

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  • James deMaine

    Wonderful very honest story.  I remember being so green in my first year, I didn’t even know the kidney was shaped like a kidney bean.  No great advice for you other than follow your heart in making the continuing choices you’ll need to make – that’s my only secret to happiness.

  • saunderp

    It’s important for medical students to reflect on their experiences during medical school.  This process of self reflection will go a long way towards keeping balance in your life.

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