It’s ironic that the medical field is arguably the most humane profession, yet we put our residents and physicians-in-training through such pain and suffering. A recent article by Dr. Pamela Wible noted that residents’ hours are “capped” at 28-hour shifts and 80-hour work weeks, which are equivalent to two full-time jobs. Recently, talking to an emergency medicine doctor, she mentioned that you need to invest in something other than medicine to keep your sanity in your pre-medical years because you will soon be encompassed in a whirlwind of medicine.
The topic came to mind after reading extensively about depression and suicide in the medical field. I’ve come to notice that the problem isn’t merely the number of hours or the tedious work but the pace of the work. Physicians are expected to work day in and day out without showing any grief for fear of being marked as “inefficient.” Along with this, they are so often restricted from finding the psychiatric help that they so desperately need. Additionally, medical school debt piles up. Physicians are stretched too thin and ultimately decide to end their lives … Where does the carnage stop? How can we accept that those who are tasked with healing people and bringing them back to life are killing themselves?
Although I don’t know the issues of medical training first-hand, I do know of them through my conversations with physicians who have been through the brutal residencies which have shaped them into the successful doctors that they are today. Out of the noise, a pattern emerged: They all advised me to embrace the grind of my pre-medical years but invest in a hobby or passion outside of medicine during my years in college. The pace of their work necessarily required an outlet to humanize them as they entered medical school and residency. After thinking about their advice, I decided to qualify their guidance: Make your own support systems and trust that the process of giving will pay back in happiness and compassion in times of distress.
In order to talk about support systems and how to ensure that they are strong enough to withstand the pressures of the pre-medical years, it’s important to differentiate a support system from avoiding the situation at hand. Support systems, in my opinion, are activities that bring a different kind of joy than ambition or professional success. I think that pre-medical students are in a unique (read: not better or more relaxing) limbo state where they are constantly studying in order to get into a medical school while still trying to find their place in college and growing as human beings. It is therefore a perfect time to start building on those supports and practice relying on them. The support systems that one can make – taking time to talk with friends and family about their interests, practicing sports or exercising, practicing an instrument, drawing for an afternoon – don’t have to be grand gestures but something as simple as talking to others about what you’re going through.
My ideas aren’t revolutionary, but I believe that in the very competitive atmosphere of medical education everything has to be done in moderation. If you think you have too much on your plate, write it down and come to it later (but don’t forget about it!). Ambition does not have to mean that you cannot rely on anyone else; in fact, by checking my ego at the door, I’ve found that I’ve learned more from others versus when I am headstrong, thus pushing through my own views. It also serves to make better friends for stronger support systems. It’s easy to see how tangible the 4.0 is in the midst of studying for an Organic Chemistry final. It’s easy to pass off “support systems” as advice for the inefficient. But I’ve found that there is much to be desired in life when I don’t have friends to help me deal with my problems and concerns.
Inevitably, I’m going to have to counter the pessimists who suggest that you still have to work hard and grind when you don’t want to. I do admit that the pre-medical years are demanding, but so is any field that you go into. To be the best at something you need to work smartly, not always harder. There are certainly sacrifices that have to be made which may result in less time for friendships or less time to carve out for fun during your time at college. That only brings more credence to the observation that the time that you allot for your support systems has to be that much more meaningful. As Dr. Seuss may have said if he was a pre-med studying for the MCAT: “Those who mind [about you ignoring their plans over the summer while you pore over a EK CARS passage] don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
It’s also hard to forget about the competition to get good grades while participating in extracurriculars. To complicate things, there’s always a desire to compare yourself to people who are scoring 529s on the MCAT and publishing jaw-dropping research, all while partying on a Tuesday. Through learning to forget about the worries of today by channeling them into an instrument or a diary, it’s much easier to be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished in your life. It lets you step away from the riptide of medicine (or pre-med) and focus on your own joy.
Personally, through writing and reading, I’ve found a medium through which I like to express my thoughts, and it acts as my own personal support system. As Carl Sagan said, “books break the shackles of time.” I’m transported into another world, ready to forget about the trials and tribulations of the current day. Or I’m writing and trying to capture my emotions in the squiggles that humans have agreed mean something. There’s something otherworldly about looking at writing and reading as a vehicle to talk to different generations and so many different people, which makes me feel small and insignificant. Another large support system is my friends and family, the ones that I can rely on to help convince me that one bad grade on my transcript isn’t going to matter in the long run. It’s the compassion and love that I have for my friends and the understanding that they have for my struggles that will.