Picking up the pieces of a broken medical dream

I was in the midst of my family medicine clinical rotation when my world came crashing down. I had failed my Step 1 boards. I would never be a doctor. It was a nightmare that unfolded over three failed attempts, from which I awoke in a new reality where I was no longer a medical student — and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change that.

I poured everything into my three years of medical school, and I loved every minute of it. So much so that I began documenting my journey and sharing my experiences with a rapidly growing number of followers of my blog. Which made the end of my dream all the more public, visible and crushing.

I learned a lot about myself as I made the painful journey from a broken ex-med student to a confident, self-possessed med-ed marketer. These experiences gave me the tools I need to help other medical students as they continue the pursuit of their own dreams and aspirations.

Because as cliché as it sounds, everything happens for a reason.

How I got here

There was nothing to suggest my path in medicine would ever be altered. I carried a solid B average through my first two years of medical school, after which I took the Step 1 and confidently started my family medicine clinical rotation. It was a shock to discover a short time later that I had failed this high-stakes exam. But I was undeterred, even as I pulled out of the clinical experience to focus solely on passing. Second attempt under my belt and confident in my re-take, I went back to clinicals. Only to fail again.

Confidence now shaken and fears mounting, I was sent to an 8-week prep course specifically designed to help struggling medical students. It didn’t help. I failed a third and final time.

Shortly before that third attempt, the med school dean told me I wouldn’t pass based on my numbers. My subconscious seized on those words and made them come true. My classmates moved on, while I stayed behind to try to process my dismissal. I cried, slept and questioned everything about myself: my intelligence, self-worth, and value as a human. I was defeated, lost and helpless, and could not see any way to begin putting the pieces of me back together.

Hope rises

After weeks of suffering from major depressive disorder, I awoke one day with the irresistible urge to pack my bags and move my entire life away from this place where I had been so miserable. I somehow realized that while growth is painful, it cannot compare to the agony of staying where you don’t belong.

I wound up in Austin with less than $1,000 to my name and no job or direction. But I forced myself to keep moving forward in my search for answers about the new me.  What are my talents? What do others say I’m good at? Who am I supposed to be?

I had always been a student, so job hunting was foreign territory for me. I applied everywhere: the FBI, public health departments, pharmaceutical and medical device sales, office and research assistants, etc. Surely, I had some knowledge and skills for being basically three-fourths of a doctor, right?

But alas, my search bore no fruit. As the frustrations built, I shut down my social channels, too ashamed and depressed to let others in as I dealt with the chaos. Then everything changed. As I was pulling the plug on the final vestige of my former life, one of the many connections I’d made through my blog showed me that I did not have to bury my medical student persona; that the blood, sweat, and tears I poured into medical school had created a valuable piece of my puzzle.

I was introduced to Dustyn and Jamie, the founders of an online clinical learning platform. They flipped the script, viewing as assets those aspects of my past that others considered shortcomings. They allowed me to differentiate myself and contribute to the field of medicine in a way few others could. After all, most people who go to med school end up with the same title: doctor.

I, on the other hand, had the opportunity to leverage my med school experience and my love of social media, and channel my motivation to learn and find purpose by helping other medical students avoid having their own dreams shattered.

Becoming whole

I’m sure by now you’re asking, “But what does all this have to do with those of us who didn’t fail out of medical school?” The answer to that question, and the takeaway from my experiences, is that you must always believe in yourself and never, ever lose sight of your potential.

Medical students have generally framed their entire lives around preparing for medical school. Most, like me, never experienced a job hunt or a career path beyond medicine. It is very easy to forget that you are more than medicine, and that doing so puts unnecessary limits on you and your potential as doctors and as more-than-doctors.

By recognizing your value and potential in medicine and beyond, you will be better doctors and happier people. “Truly great doctors,” Dustyn likes to say, “are amazing people who happen to practice medicine.”

Failing medical school isn’t something I’d wish upon my worst enemy. But it forced me to see that I am (and always was) so much more than a doctor-in-training. That everything I have done up until now has been for a purpose — just not the one I had convinced myself was the “right” purpose.

By refusing to define yourself so narrowly, you’ll be better at recovering from life’s curveballs. Whether you’re struggling in school, failing the board (for the first or third time), or dealing with a recalcitrant patient, knowing who you really are means you’ll be better able to pick yourself up and dust yourself off — because your comeback will be far greater than any setback.

Marteney Jacobs, a former medical student, is a marketing and social media associate, OnlineMedEd.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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