Yesterday I was invited to give a talk to a group of about fifty freshmen undergraduates at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). These students were enrolled in a course designed to explore what it would be like to work in the medical field, as a physician, nurse, dentist, physical or occupational therapist. I started the discussion with the story of my own non-traditional background. How I was an older student when I started, a massage therapist, a wife and mother of a teenage daughter. How I made the choice to become a physician with absolutely no idea at all of what I was signing up for. I honestly did not want to discourage this group of enthusiastic young students, but I also wanted to tell them the truth. The good, the bad and the ugly.
I told them the absolute essentials needed in order to become a physician: a lifelong passion for learning, a well of resilience, endurance, patience, and a clear sense of their why. Why medicine. Why now. Why physician versus any other career one could choose that also serves others. This why would be the fuel of the grit required to get through the process. To get up early and stay up late, to study yet some more, to go to work for thirty hours or weeks in a row, to see just one more patient. And to do these things not when your battery is empty, but when your battery is in the negative. When you’re exhausted and sleep deprived. When your own health and family has been put on the back burner. When you start to question why you ever made this choice in the first place. These moments don’t happen every day, every month, or even every year, but when they do, there has to be a deep connection to your why, so that you keep showing up.
I transitioned into telling them what a day in my life is currently like. How truly magical those moments are when I get to interact with patients and the other members of our rehabilitation team; how these moments fill me up and fuel the rest of my day when I have to attend to the not-so-fun parts of practicing medicine. How much more time is spent on the computer completing required documentation and other administrative tasks, both necessary to keep the wheels of the healthcare system running.
I then shifted to a list of questions a colleague and fellow writer Richelle Marracino, MD developed to help guide pre-medical students. These are some of the questions I wish I had been asked before I took the plunge into medical school so many years ago, the same ones I asked the UNR students to ask themselves yesterday. How do you feel about studying over 10 hours a day for many years in a row? How do you feel about being around people that are suffering and in pain? How comfortable will you be with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt? How do you feel about setting aside your creativity and/or outside interests in order to do what will be expected?
I wish I had known so many things and had asked myself these questions. I wish I knew I would experience so much stress, in one form or another, continuously for so many years, and how it would affect my physical and emotional health. I wish I had started practicing stress reduction habits on day one of medical school. I wish I had known the anxiety I would experience from going from the top of my undergraduate classes to being barely in the middle of my medical school class. I wish I had known how much doubt I would feel about my ability to become a physician and how many times I would experience imposter syndrome. I wish I had thought more about compounding interest, how long it would take me to pay off my student loans, and how little time I would have to save for retirement. I wish I knew there was always going to be a longer to-do-list at work than there were hours in a day.
I believe that if I had pondered these questions prior to starting medical school, if someone farther along the path had told me the truth about what medical training was like, I would have still made the choice to become a physician, but I would have been so much more prepared. I would have suffered so much less knowing I was not alone in the struggle. This is what I hoped to offer these energetic young undergraduate students: come into medicine with your eyes wide open, so that you can continue to keep your heart open for yourself and your patients. So that you will not just survive but thrive in the practice of medicine.