After four brutal years of medical school, my colleagues and I finally obtained our medical degrees. As graduation approached, I couldn’t help but reflect on the whole experience, but when I tried discussing the matter with my friends, I discovered that we all had difficulty articulating the precise concoction of emotions we were feeling. Most simply summed up the feeling as “weird.” On graduation eve, however, I found myself in bed with tears rolling in rivulets down my cheeks, and wondering how it could be so hard to explain why.
This difficulty stems from so many different aspects of the medical journey. One part is the arduous nature of the beast: the sleepless nights of study, the sacrificed relationships, the anxiety surrounding the constant exams. After years of what feels like martyrdom, our graduation feels like an admission of the strain under which we were placed, a validation of it, and a big, “Well I’m glad that’s finally over.”
The sighs and tears we release are both joyful and bitter. We constantly question and doubt ourselves. What did I actually do to deserve this? What does a grade of “honors” tell you about me, when I have friends who put their entire being and soul into their work and only scrape by with a “pass”? Am I simply a professional test taker, trained my whole life to be proficient in the science of multiple choice exams? We feel that once we enter residency, we will be found out for the impostors we are, and that the suffixes after our name are nothing more than overpriced letters. The one thing that comforts me about this self-derision is that I believe it shows just how intensely we desire to live up to and surpass the standards of being a physician.
Another component of graduation emotions — perhaps the most important one — is parting ways with our colleagues. The past four years felt like an academic war, and my friends were right there in the trenches beside me. The bond we forged was unique; I did not become close friends with many of my classmates, but I did not dislike a single one, a remarkable occurrence given the randomness of putting a class of 175 diverse strangers together. And I lament leaving them. We are all going our separate ways for residency, seeds of physicians being carried on the wind to far flung states, and this forces us to realize that friendships and relationships are not cumulative like we hope for, but segmental.
We have our college friends and then move on when we graduate, then we have our medical school friends and do the same, and rinse and repeat for residency, and each subsequent job. It is so easy in this modern world for the extent of our continued relationships to be simply liking an occasional social media post or picture, and I can only hope that this is a filter the friends who truly matter will get past. The tears I shed were for this loss and tough life lesson. But I know for a fact that if I needed to call on one of these beautiful friends and colleagues, they would not hesitate to answer.
When I look back on medical school, I can’t recall many specific events or memories pertaining to my actual education. Tests came and went, clerkships did the same. But I find myself comparing medical school to any number of books that I have read: I would be extremely hard-pressed to tell you much at all about the plot of them, but I can vividly tell you the emotions I felt when reading them, and whether I enjoyed them. I realize now that this is a love letter to my class, to all the classes that feel that special bond of medical school. The tears I weep are for them, for us, and for the bittersweet thought that medical school was just another long book I had to read in order to create these relationships.
Arthur Zak is a physician.
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