I sat hunched over in a coffee shop, staring at anatomy flashcards as they appeared and quickly disappeared on my computer screen. I was in the midst of my first semester of medical school, and I was feeling discouraged and overwhelmed.
My classmates and I had just finished a notoriously difficult block of material (foundations of pathology), and we were onto the cardiovascular system. I dishearteningly clicked through anatomy pictures of the chest cavity. Although courses were going well, my anxiety level had reached astronomical heights while my confidence had reached cavernous new lows.
As I continued to study halfheartedly, a lady in a bright floral dress walked by my computer. She must have seen my computer screen because she happily chirped, “Oh! Are you in medical school?” I answered yes, wondering how she could tell from the cadaver pictures that materialized on my screen.
The woman responded, “Oh, that’s great! My husband and I are both physicians. We talk about how difficult medical school was regularly. Those were dark times.”
My ears perked up.
She continued. “I wish someone had told me how dark medical school could be. It’s tough, but it’s worth it one hundred times over.”
I took a deep breath, and a smile slowly grew across my face. “Yeah, it’s definitely tough.”
The woman continued as her floral dress swayed in the light coming in from outside the coffee shop. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. It is an incredible privilege to be able to save another person’s life.”
I thought to myself — this woman was right. At the end of the day, the struggles I encountered now would pale in comparison to the relief I would help provide to my patients one day. I sat up a little straighter, and the woman continued.
“Oh, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can do whatever you want to do. I have four children, and I practice medicine, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
I thanked her for sharing her insight with me, and the woman strutted off, floral dress flowing around her.
Although I did not get this woman’s name, her words of wisdom brought me solace right when I needed it most. I took a sip of my coffee and refocused on my anatomy flashcards with a newfound sense of determination. Medical school can be dark, but the light on the other side seemed so much brighter.
I shared this story with my classmates, many of whom were also feeling burnt out and discouraged. Hearing the story of the lady in the floral dress brought them a renewed sense of hope that they could carry with them into the next block of the curriculum and throughout their medical career.
Months after our encounter, I still think about the lady in the floral dress who managed to cast away my doubt right when I needed it most. There was no way for her to know that her words happened to be exactly what I needed to hear that day and would be shared among disheartened students within an entire institution.
Trying to focus on medical studies during a global pandemic is no easy task. These experiences are weathering us to be hypervigilant future physicians who are able to focus on patient care during times of crisis.
This is for the medical students past, present, and future, who are feeling overwhelmed by medical school. The “dark days” of medical school can feel overwhelming, but these moments are worth it one hundred times over for the privilege of taking care of patients. And to the woman in the floral dress — if you are reading this, thank you.
Olivia Reszczynski is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com