After having made it through another holiday season of family gatherings and cocktail parties, I thought I had been asked every possible ‘first year of medical school’ question in existence: What kind of doctor do you want to be? Are you interested in what you’re learning? How’s the stress level? Do you like your classmates? – and the like. But over dinner with an old friend last week, I was finally confronted with a new and thought-provoking one: How has learning about the body changed the way you live?
This question caught me slightly off-guard. It wasn’t as if I had ignored the connections that could be made between the learning material and myself throughout first semester. During anatomy, for example, I often saw my body as something like a Polaroid picture that I was watching slowly develop: with each new muscle or organ system explored, a new portion came into focus. And after learning about the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in biochemistry class, my experience of eating, hunger, and satiety changed: whenever I got hungry after that point, I started to consider not only the growling of my stomach but also the levels of glycogen coursing through my bloodstream.
Still, looking back on first semester, none of that awareness really altered my behavior in a serious way. Even though I knew more about how my insulin levels were going to rise after eating white sugar, it usually didn’t stop me from eating that second (or third) cookie. Knowing more about median nerve compression didn’t prevent me from typing on my laptop at a far-from-ergonomic angle while lying in bed. And touching a cirrhotic liver didn’t put much of a glitch in my plans to meet friends for a happy hour drink on any given Friday. As much as I was relating the new material to myself, there still remained a clear divide between awareness and practice.
At first, in realizing that my answer to my friend’s question was, “Well, not really…” I became somewhat disappointed with myself. Why had I not internalized the material more? How could I ignore that information, and not let it affect my daily choices? How was I going to recommend more exercise to a patient if I myself regularly avoided the treadmill – wouldn’t that make me a hypocrite?
At the same time, in medical school we are taught again and again to distance ourselves from the material and to build up walls. There’s only so much control we can have over any given situation, and agonizing over each of them will only create useless stress and anxiety. It’s not going to be very productive to diagnose ourselves with every bacterial infection we learn about in microbiology class, for example, or to worry about the various DNA errors that can be encoded with every division of our cells.
So if, as medical students, we’re being taught to both “practice what you preach” and “build up a wall,” where does that leave us? As I see it, it leaves two possible paths: choosing one extreme and going with it wholeheartedly (at the risk of burning out), or practicing all things in moderation and finding balance.
When it comes to my lifestyle choices, there is no question that eating whole and colorful foods, exercising regularly, maintaining a meditative practice, and expressing myself creatively are the habits that make me feel best. This I know, through and through. I also know, however, that I have other lifestyle habits, like watching sitcom marathons and eating processed sugars, that aren’t necessarily as wonderful for me. Still, they bring me pleasure in their own way, and so I allow a place for them, in moderation.
Of course, moderation – when it comes to eating, exercise, and countless other things – isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Especially now that I’m in medical school, I recognize just how easy it is to become entirely consumed by one thing – be it schoolwork or the field of medicine itself (and, accordingly, how easy that can make it to skip out on exercise or eat only cereal and pizza!). But I think moderation is an important skill to practice, particularly as I continue down my career path as a physician. Thinking back on the doctors that I myself have gone to throughout the years, I’ve never wanted any of them to be so deeply entrenched in one way of thinking – or their medical career – that they couldn’t relate to where I was coming from as a person who was more than just her set of symptoms.
And when it comes to their own personal habits, I’ve never expected any of them to lead textbook-perfect lives – nor have I wanted them to. What I’ve always wanted is a doctor who knows what is best for my physical, mental, and emotional health. And sometimes, that means a doctor who can relate to just how delicious that extra cookie can be.
So assuming you’ve got most of your veggies, fruits, and exercise in order, go ahead and grab a cookie from time to time. Physician, treat thyself!
About the author
Emily S. is a first-year medical student at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.