Observing Ramadan as a medical student

3 a.m. The alarm blares. Get up, make food, study. Maximize caffeine intake, maximize studying efficiency.

4:12 am. Take the last sip of water, pray. Maximize studying with residual caffeine power.

7 a.m. Get dressed, go to work. Stay awake, stay alert, see patients, present well, regurgitate answers, retain information. Produce saliva, clear dry throat. Study during lunch break. Stay awake, stay alert, see patients, present well, regurgitate answers, retain information.

6 p.m. Go home. Dry mouth, empty stomach. Attempt studying. Stay focused.

9:05 p.m. time to eat. Full stomach, tired eyes, tired brain.

10 p.m. Sleep.

3 a.m. The alarm blares.

Every year, close to 2 billion Muslims around the world observe the month of Ramadan, a time dedicated to prayer, mental and spiritual purification, charity, and fasting from food and drink, from sunrise to sunset. This year, Ramadan began on May 27th and ends on June 25th.

As a medical student rotating through my last clerkship of 3rd year and preparing for my quickly approaching Step 2 board exam, fasting for over 17 hours a day has compounded another layer of anxiety and burnout. Surprisingly, however, fasting has contributed a refreshing perspective on my involvement with patient care and has shaped every day normal encounters into new light.

In my moments of self-pity, I remind myself of the transience that is my supposed suffering. One month — that’s it. Although obvious, we easily forget in our own miseries that people around the world struggle through this every single day without eating or drinking not because they want to, but because they have no choice. Similarly, when a 17 year old is newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or a 45 year-old reaches the point of end-stage renal disease, each must now endure the tragic chronicity of their disease for the rest of his/her life. The permanence of such a reality that we present to these patients is evermore humbling in the face of my fleeting hunger.

Beyond food, fasting requires me to explore an internal freedom and move beyond a materialistic craving. It forces me to re-examine my limitations mercifully, to revamp my priorities subjectively, and to better myself zealously. Although I continue to work relentlessly, I feel more liberated from the demoralizing expectations of honoring exams and more so crave the knowledge to become a better physician for my patients — a mindset that I feel has me physically and mentally healthier.

Fasting teaches endurance, empathy, and sacrifice — three qualities all great physicians recognize and share. It is with this newfound understanding that I have rejuvenated my journey in medicine. Hippocrates once said that, “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.” As someone who began medical school enchanted by “the art of medicine,” I would be lying if I said the hurdles have not contributed to a diminishing of that passion. Once a year, Ramadan offers me a reset button, and I am reminded of the privilege and beauty of this profession.

Eman Sahloul is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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