Medical school is miserable. Here’s the secret to surviving it.

Dear future medical student:

It’s graduation week. I’m running into people I haven’t seen in a long time. There are a few things on my mind currently, and in four years, you’ll have the same conversations.

“Did you have so much fun in med school? Did you love it?”

“No.”

“Wow! Those four just FLEW by, didn’t they?”

“No. They absolutely did not.”

“Well just WAIT ‘til you get to residency. THAT was hard. What you just did is easy.”

“I’m just trying to take this one day at a time, you know. I am just trying to take time to celebrate something, to be in the moment and to be present. These are things I have ignored for the past four years.”

I have these conversations with well-meaning people I love, who have championed my cause. They have watched from the beginning and known me this whole time, so they’ve seen my struggle. Some of the students I used to teach (I was a teacher for five years before med school) are actually in medical school now. Someone asked me what the hardest part of all of this was. As I reflect on my last four years, I realize that it’s difficult to put into words how hard they were. But I’ll try.

The hardest part wasn’t having four tests per week for two years straight, including the fact that there was always a test on Mondays. (This means that there was no such thing as a weekend for us for two years. This will wear away on you after a while.) It wasn’t that I pushed my body and myself farther than I should have. (My sleep patterns are always erratic now, my hair is thinner, I become anxious much easier now and I cannot get by without at least three servings of caffeine per day.) It’s not even that the “medical education mentality,” as much as they’re trying to change it, is very much one of competition and trying to look the least stupid. (I understand that every time I’m told that I’m wrong or my plan of action is ridiculous, it’s to keep me from killing someone. I get that, I hear it, I acknowledge my misjudgment, I correct it.) It’s not the lack of preparedness I had for the parts of medicine that are incredibly emotional and hard. (I was not ready for fetal demises, running codes on children, slow regressions and hospice care.)

The hardest part of medical school has nothing to do with medical school. It has everything to do with not having a personal life or personal time. It has everything to do with putting your life on hold and continuing to delay gratification while you watch the other people in your life move forward. You’ve hit pause for an indeterminate amount of time, and you emerge from the cave to find that others around you were busy making a life while you were working at making a living.

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for that. And I’ll say, that for many people in my medical school class, they did do the difficult work of feeding their relationships, of planning weddings, getting married, being pregnant or juggling multiple children. My hat is off to them. I honestly don’t understand how they did it. I am in awe.

Because you see, I tried and failed in these respects, but at the end of the day, I had to survive — just survive. I often didn’t know what day it was, the current events on the news, any songs on the radio, any references to pop culture or recent movies or music. I just tried to make it out alive. I did.

And therein lies the victory: I survived this, I made it out alive, I matched to my top program. These are my gold medals. We live in a world where a person gets more Facebook likes for getting engaged than getting a doctorate, and I’m not sure how I feel about all of it except to say this: We need to celebrate things that take time and require perseverance. I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate other things, too. I’m just saying that we need to designate and assign value to the hard things. We need to acknowledge the hard things. And we need to be honest about what those things are.

I want you to know that despite how this all might sound, I am upbeat and excited for a new chapter. It is a chapter that has been in the making for more than four years. Indeed, it has taken up the grand majority of my adult life. I am excited to be that person finally — the one who gets to walk with you on your journey. I consider it a privilege of my life to be in a room with someone who will go on to share even the most personal information with me, all because of some abbreviation after my name.

I just want to be as honest and real as possible about all this. And that, my friend, has been the hardest part. Because when a former student tells me they’re going to medical school, I’m simultaneously excited and terrified for them. Excited because I know that they’ll one day be a great physician; terrified because I know what’s coming in the short-term.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.” As terrified as I am to be an intern, I know that work is more than work when it’s work worth doing. There has to be a greater goal if I’m going to make it in this line of work anyway. So, I hope it’s all been worth it. I really do. I have to believe that it has.

So I wanted you to know about the hard things. You’ve made your choice. I encourage you to try to make a life while you’re working at making a living. Everyone’s experience is individual anyway, but I think my colleagues would echo the same sentiment.

Good luck to you,

A graduating 4th year

Tristan Brooks is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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