With Match Day come and gone, and I cannot help but find myself reflecting upon the journey. The inaugural day of medical school orientation was nearly four years ago now, and it would be entirely cliché to say it feels like it was just yesterday. Rather, the truth is that it honestly feels like a lifetime ago. And yet I still remember the finest details of that day, down to the very breakfast I ate and the suit I wore. Anxiously I approached the old limestone steps, marking the entrance of the medical school’s great hall just off 2nd Street. There I stumbled upon two students, sharply dressed, my classmates-to-be, taking pictures and making memories. We introduced ourselves, then took a deep breath, and together pushed open the doors to the next four years.
For me, medical school was an accident, something I didn’t plan on or even dream of. I grew up in a family with no ties to medicine, in community with one stoplight, and summers spent working on local farms. My dream was to attend culinary school, and become a pastry chef. Food was fascinating, and that interest was cultivated by watching shows such as Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on the Food Network. Cooking was the ultimate release from reality, allowing for creativity, passion, and focus. Often serving as a foundation among cultures, it has the ability to together families, friends, religions, and enemies. I wanted to become a part of that legacy, and dedicate my life to its preservation, but then one day nine years ago my dream was gone.
As a senior in high school I was offered to shadow an orthopedic surgeon, and to be quite honest I didn’t even know what one was back then. Medical students often come from families of physicians, and years of exposure to the medical profession. In fact, they probably dressed up as doctors for Halloween. The rest of us come from families with no doctors, no nurses, or anything at all related to healthcare. Where you come from or where you’ve been doesn’t automatically make you a doctor. I’m a prime example, and that’s what is so great about medicine. At that very moment nine years ago when I slipped those scrubs on and wandered my way into the operating room, my passion changed forever.
Each year medical schools are filled with incoming students who are considered type A and strive for perfection. Additionally, most have very little personal experience with failure which is where the danger lies. Medical school not only challenges you academically, but also emotionally, physically, and mentally. Then it must seem very strange that students with such qualities would voluntarily subject themselves to the grueling journey of becoming a physician where “perfection” truly does not exist. The news is commonly filled with stories of the “dangers” of medical school. How an estimated 300 to 400 physicians die each year from suicide. That approximately 6 percent of medical students fail and drop out of medical school, 11.1 percent suffer from suicidal ideation, 27.2 percent from depression, and 32.4 percent from alcohol abuse/dependence.
What about the financial burden? How about an upwards of $300,000 in debt, which then only grows in interest as it is slowly paid off. I guarantee most students don’t have the slightest idea of these risks before beginning medical school. So do medical school applications need to be issued a black box warning, or surgeon general’s warning, or perhaps an informed consent? No, that would be wildly outlandish, and quite frankly unnecessary. A simple conversation would suffice. The point is that this profession is not for the faint of heart, because it has the ability to put you in the crosshairs of your patients, colleagues, and even the media as we often can see.
Now I find myself in the shadow of medical school graduation, and I cannot help but reflect on the past four years. The path to graduation will be very different for each of us, but the final goal will forever remain the same. To become a physician means earning one of the highest privileges, and as we heal our patients, we must do so with compassion and empathy. Physicians are in a business that requires a lifelong commitment to dealing with real human beings. Patients will seek refuge, and place their greatest trust in your hands at a point in life when they are most vulnerable. It truly is an amazing opportunity.
This past week, a friend asked if I thought I would do it all over again, and I took a minute before answering. In retrospect, getting into medical school felt like an act of God. The grades, volunteering, leadership, shadowing, and everything else it took to spark the attention of admissions committees is quite remarkable. I often think about the thousands of students who couldn’t quite get into medical school for whatever reason. Maybe it was because of one bad grade, an MCAT score below the 90th percentile, or perhaps they were simply lost in the shuffle. Adding insult to injury, each year there are those among us who too often lose sight of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and write posts about how they regret ever going to medical school. I urge you to reconsider. Take a second, step back, and remember why you’re here.
You know I often wonder which experience I will remember most. Maybe it will be the first newborn I delivered, the first surgery I saw, the first dying patient’s hand I held as they passed, or the patient who died beneath my arms in the CT scanner as I performed CPR. I just don’t know. Only time will tell which memories we hold onto, and those that will slowly fade away.
Before I head to class, I’ll leave you with this final thought. In a few short months, I’ll be standing beside the other forty-three students in my class on graduation day. They are without question some of the most spectacular and amazing people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and I will most certainly never forget them as we part ways for residency. We survived this journey, we are the future of medicine, and for that very reason, I believe we are the lucky ones.
Mitch Obey is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com