What does sacrifice in medicine really mean?

Just another day as you work into the depths of the night. Medicine engulfs your life as your focus is centered on your responsibilities for tomorrow. You may or may not have time to sit down and enjoy a meal in silence. You may or may not have the opportunity to say good-bye or hello to a loved one. I hope we all had the foresight to realize what we got ourselves into when we followed our passions, but it seems like you have to be wired in a different way than other members of our population to get through all of these obstacles at the rate that we do and still manage your own sanity and ability to empathize with others on a day-to-day basis. Without the right mental state, it’s a challenge to go through this. Medical school is akin to the NBA of academics, and it takes not only a lot of talented brainpower, but also a lot of persistence and sheer will power to pull through. A healthy combination of those two things will help you get to the top, but for those who aren’t interested in becoming one of the top dogs, you may try to find your niche instead, just trying to survive the rigor. You find your people; you find your hobbies; you find your happiness. You let go of the competitive rat race, and you focus on your well-being so that you can sustain your physical and mental efforts throughout.

We can sometimes overlook how much we sacrificed to get here. It’s no different than the professional athlete that sacrificed his childhood in order to train or the single mother that works two jobs and goes to school while supporting her children. For some, the sacrifice of hard work is a blessing in disguise. I worked for a cardiologist who had a sick son in the hospital and wife who was not truly invested in their relationship. He was in misery, but working to the brink of exhaustion was therapeutic for him. For a classmate of mine, the same type of sacrifice while going through an MD/PhD program cost him his marriage. The promise of a better life that comes along with our sacrifice may not come to fruition as we’d all like.

Medical students are a unique breed of people when compared to the rest of our population. I’ve been fortunate to live in a place that is popular for many transplants, live in another continent, and be amongst people that are either wealthy or poor from different ethnicities. Medical students are different in a lot of ways. We are a hungry, competitive bunch. We tend to be neurotic, politically correct, and always trying to say or do the right things in order to please that one professor so we can get a grade we can be proud of. We are largely objective in thought and data-driven, leaving minimal room for emotion or other miscellaneous factors that could affect our way of thinking. You could also say that we morph into test-taking machines at one point in our training. Given our similarities, our personalities tend to clash at times. Competition brings out both the best in us on exams when we compete against ourselves and the worst in us when we try to compete against each other. That’s not to say we don’t get along. We’re just like other people in a lot of ways.  There are cliques that develop, and we enjoy spending time with others who share our interests outside of medicine.

A lot of us in medical school will have been in school the entirety of our lives and might not get a sense of the real world until residency. We might never have had to deal with monetary problems, relationship problems, or conflicts that don’t come with a multiple-choice answer. We may go through life deriving our happiness largely from feedback in terms of grades and other similar modalities. Taking a gap year before applying to medical school, I learned much about the real world and used some of my free time to travel and play tennis with new people through a tennis organization. I discovered a newfound joy for meeting people and hearing about their experiences. For me, there’s an undeniable inherent value in this, and if I had gone into medical school right after college, I am not sure that I would have had the same appreciation for it. It makes me wonder if a medical student’s competitive drive to obtain the highest of grades may be translated after residency to obtaining the highest of monetary rewards or prestige status. Granted, not everyone has the same goals and motivations in medicine, but it just seems to me that if one with a high-achieving mindset doesn’t have a significant break to stop and at least question what they want, they might head off in a trajectory of the same line that they might not have wanted to head towards in the first place. Another physician I worked for described how he and his partners would compete every year for the recognition of earning the highest annual salary among the group and about the clever tactics each one would use for an advantage. It distorted my previous perception of what the possible image of a doctor could be behind the curtain.

Ultimately being different is not something that is bad, but when the doctors of tomorrow are wired differently than the rest of our population, it may create a disconnect when trying to create and maintain relationships. There are plenty of other problems in the world that need our immediate attention; however, as with some things in life, I think it’s important to become aware of this difference while doing our best to mitigate any obstacles in the creation of a healthy relationship between ourselves and our patients, another sacrifice I hope we’d all be in favor of making.

The author is an anonymous medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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