The end of the school year is always a convenient time to step back and reflect on last year’s events and next year’s goals. So as endocrinology lectures wind down and New York summer days approach, I am inclined to think about medical school thus far—what I’ve learned both in and out of the classroom. It is taken for granted that we students of medicine hold health above all else. The health of our patients, family, and friends is of supreme importance. But what about our own health? We spend so much time in the classroom learning how to be doctors, but what about how to be patients?
Staying mentally well is difficult. Admittedly, choosing a profession for life—a profession that requires daunting levels of self-discipline and hours unmatched by most other jobs—is a somewhat unnatural choice for a twenty-something. As our friends transition from jobs in education to media to finance, it is difficult to consider our relative stasis in one profession as normal. These kinds of comparisons naturally lead to envy, doubt, or stress, which are no doubt augmented by the demands of school. However, I believe that the right mindset can alleviate a lot of these feelings. As a fortune cookie once told me: “Every situation is what you make of it.”
By staying well, I am pleased to say that I will look back on my first year of medical school fondly. But isn’t medical school supposed to be crushing amounts of work and memorization? Sure. But if medical school is but one aspect of your life, then looking back on the experience can be positive. Of course students must maintain the focus & discipline to pass tests and make it through the rigors of graduate education, but defining time in terms of “semesters” and “hours of lecture” limits identity.
I chose to become a wellness representative for my class in order to help my peers retain the identities they had before medical school. Columbia has done an excellent job drawing singers, artists, athletes, and business minds into medicine, but ensuring that these students keep up with their passions is more difficult. I have found that I can keep up with running and pleasure reading and socializing simply by scheduling time for it. Committing to a running team every Wednesday from 6-7pm, or a weekly dinner with a friend from 8-10pm on Monday– regardless of pending exams, or how behind I may feel in reviewing lectures– has been my personal key to balance. Counterbalancing the rigorous schedule of medical school with an equally structured commitment to life outside of school has been essential to reminding myself of my obligations to myself as patient.
Keeping alive an active life outside of medical school reminds me that even when I have not memorized antibiotic side effects, or renal histology slides, or hormonal pathways, I can measure my successes in other ways. Rather than letting a one-dimensional assessment of myself like a test score determine my wellbeing, I can integrate the score with the fact that I ran five miles, or am keeping up with friends, or am reading fiction (and not physiology!). And then the test scores become not-all-that-bad, because I refuse to let a number dominate my identity. Of course, I am still finding the formula that works best for me. Sometimes, I cancel a dinner here, or a run there—but just having it on my schedule helps me think of days not as “lab days” or “lecture days” but just another day in my life.
About the author
Steven A. McDonald is currently finishing his first year of medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, where he is a wellness representative for his class.