Since starting medical school, I have struggled to answer this question. Because medical school is everything. It’s amazing, challenging, soul-sucking, life-giving, exhausting, dream-fulfilling, anxiety-provoking, interesting, and, dare I say, fun? How can I explain to someone that while I’m pursuing this dream, a dream that so few get the opportunity to pursue, that I have felt the lowest of lows but also the highest of highs?
I typically settle for “It’s busy, but I’m enjoying it.”
Part of me feels as though my friends and family shouldn’t have to hear about my heavy thoughts. Thoughts such as “How I am studying this much and getting that result?” Or “How is that person handling everything so well, while I could burst into tears at literally any moment?” They don’t deserve that for simply asking how things are going.
But I’m also not sure they deserve the excited ones. (For example, when I finally get a 5 on a histology lab quiz or my standardized patient recognized that I used her name twice during the encounter.) Try as they might, they can’t truly appreciate the highs or lows at the level I would hope. Not because they aren’t intelligent and not for lack of trying, but because this experience can be so isolating from those on the “outside.” I used to equate medical school to summer camp. I’d come home from camp, rattling off every funny story and interesting activity I could think of, but whoever heard my stories would never find the stories quite as funny, or the activities as interesting. It’s impossible unless you were there.
As I write this, I am sitting in a doctor’s office with my heart beating out of my chest, fidgety, finding air to be a little harder to breathe than usual. Yet all I can think is “I don’t have time for this. I have four exams this week.” The irony is that this is the very reason I’m here. I think about my schedule—how do I fit in tutoring, club duties, board studying?—and my heart beats even faster. I look at the number on the scale, my blood pressure, pulse—all higher than two years ago.
Here I sit. Overweight, overtired, overwhelmed.
When I leave here today, I’ll exchange the patient gown for my white coat, hang my stethoscope around my neck and inform a pretend patient that I will be performing the very exam I just had done on myself. I will smile, shake their hand, and move on. As we all have to. The boxes on our ever-growing checklist will get checked. They always do. That’s how we got here. No matter what looms in the horizon, we see it, we face it, and we move forward. A little worse for the wear, but forward still. Medical school is hard because you don’t get here by settling. You get here by having high expectations and meeting them. Yet here, we are asked to lower those expectations—to fundamentally change the part of our personalities that brought us this far. We want to do our best on everything, but sometimes it is truly not physically possible. I struggle with that disconnect. I struggle with the balance of giving myself grace for the sake of my mental health and being disciplined to do the right things for my physical health and academic/professional success.
Medical school is hard. It’s relentless. But something that has always felt like a light in the darkness has been the relationships I have built with my classmates, my friends. There is something very uniting about going through this experience together. We can all fully understand each other at the level we need to be understood. We can feel what each other is feeling with just a look. We feel the relief after finishing a big exam, and the exhaustion leading up to it.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K Rowling wrote, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
I think medical school is one of those things, too. And I’m eternally grateful for the community of physicians and students with whom I can share this experience, this life. For the times I feel so deeply understood in an otherwise overwhelming path we’ve all chosen for ourselves.
So maybe I’m a little heavier, but I’ve grown in more important ways, too: resiliency, self-confidence, mental toughness. I’ve learned about the complexities and intricacies of the human body, the disease processes that ensnare it and the pharmacology that preserves it, at a level very few are privileged to know. I’ve learned that life is easier, and better, when you’re surrounded by a community of support. I’ve been reminded at a very real level that nothing worth having comes easily. And despite the anxiety and exhaustion that I swear I can feel in my bones, I’m successfully becoming a doctor with some of the best humans I know by my side.
So, how’s medical school?
It’s busy. But I’m enjoying it.
Maycee Gielow is a medical student.
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