In many ways, the students of Class of 2017 have become my second family. In the warm August of 2014, each of us arrived at orientation from different walks of life. We became one in the quiet moments as we donned our ceremonial white coats one after another and nervously found our designated places next to our coating second years. It was not unintentional that we swore the Hippocratic Oath as one–it marked the beginnings of a four-year relationship with each other and our transition from civilian life into medical. It represented an unspoken first moment of camaraderie. It represented the first knot tied in this large professional community.
From then on, we have and continue to share a plethora of common struggles and experiences. From cadaver anatomy, our first examinations, annual Thanksgiving breakups, to post-hardship celebrations, we have individually yet collectively found solace and companionship in these common yet unique experiences. In a way, we’ve nurtured something special, akin to a large, rowdy family. Every single member in this family has a story, and we’ve all grown to share a piece of our lives with one another. Perhaps the greatest quality of the medical school experience is the diversity and acceptance of characters in this big family. Even as a shy introvert with a lot of social anxiety who craved but feared social interaction, I felt that I was accepted yet respected for my own preferences. This incredibly heartwarming feeling is best portrayed when my first attendance at the class-wide first semester ugly sweater party was met with such (unexpected) enthusiastic outcries. I wasn’t one to attend big parties due to my social anxiety and tried my best to engage with my classmates in as large of a group as I could handle, so I had been preparing myself for the long night of smiles and being ignored. However, the way everyone screamed my name with arms in the air at my mere arrival really knocked my heart out of its socks. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t just tolerated or accessory to the class; I was wanted. No one wanted me to conform to the mold of the populace; they liked me for exactly the way I am. I’ve discovered that we’re all nerds in our different quirky ways, and that isn’t a bad thing. In a way, our eccentricities is what makes this class unique to its own.
Naturally, it is always with saddening sentiments when I hear of losses from academic or life attrition. By now, we’re figured out medical school isn’t easy, but what’s more so is the fact that life doesn’t stop for us in midst of our worst academic nightmares. Whether due to personal reasons or due to an incompatibility with the nature of medicine, students come and go every year. Most of the time they come back and join the entering class, but sometimes they don’t.
It’s like a death, almost. Losing a member in this large rowdy family feels incredibly lonesome. Over the usual bumbling chatter of our family’s interactions and daily conversations, the silence of his or her presence feels almost deafening. These persons that I have grown to know well and cherish are no longer a part of our community. This path of shared experience that we have walked on together has come to an end. And somewhere in my illogical and overly obsessive mind, I wonder if there was something I could have done to change the situation. From my personal experiences, I have been a strong advocate for mental wellbeing and ample support for the student body. Physician burnout and the attrition rates are grave matters that have fortunately gained more focus in the recent years, and I believe it is important for medical institutions to strive to protect their vital members from the chronic stress, death, and grief that we are subjected to. It is in these moments that I question if I had failed my duties to my fellow colleague when I was needed. I wonder if I had done enough. Because medical school can be all-consuming–survival of the self becomes our priority, and sometimes that means we crawl into a hole and just focus on the next exam, deadline, assignment, what-have-you. But in between these urgent times of crises, have I done enough to love my large, extended family?
Medicine is harsh and unrelenting. It is true that modern medicine has advanced towards integrative and multidisciplinary medicine, many academic institutions adjusting their curriculum to foster collaboration instead of singular excellence. Tradition, however, tells us to act otherwise. We are isolated in–perhaps our own–expectations to take in the torrent of knowledge being fed to us through a fire hose while managing the other stresses in our lives with few stumbles. Whether it is the imposed traditions of medicine or own personal expectations, many of us isolate when we are faced with struggles and consider them as challenges we must overcome on our own. In reality, by leaning on each other a little more, we can take on the daunting beast of medicine together, stronger than alone. Perhaps in this way, we can minimize some of the losses to our family.
For the time being, I will strive to truly cherish the time I have with my strongly-knit family. For those who have left, I am honored to have had the privilege to walk alongside them. Through these trials, no matter the outcome, we have learned many things not only about the world of medicine, but also about ourselves. We have learnt that we are incredibly plastic; that we are resilient; that we can rise up to the challenge when we’ve felt burnt-out and have nothing left to give. Importantly, we have learnt that sometimes fights have to be chosen and we may not always win. And above all, I have learnt that the greatest and humbling experience of my medical education is to be part of this amazing and diverse community.