At the University of Alabama (UAB) School of Medicine, we are placed into a learning community (LC) as one of our first steps upon entering medical school. Our whole class size is around 180 students, but our learning communities are intended to comprise approximately twenty students per year in which we can have more open conversations about how we are doing, some of the ethical issues that we may face in the next few years and our cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds or barriers.
After our first year of coursework, our LC mentors asked us to write a confidential letter to our “2016 self,” or ourselves at the time just before we began medical school. Right away, I recalled that at that time, I was a nervous wreck. I had just fought through nearly four years of what became a chronic health condition. I was worried about whether or not I could truly thrive or even survive in medical school. As a result, I was eager to write to myself about everything that had changed since medical school began.
The following year, as most of us were about to finish our second year and switch gears from studying for classroom exams to actually caring for patients full-time, our LC mentors returned our sealed letters. It is my hope that by sharing what I wrote to pre-medical school “me” after one year of training, those who have not yet embarked upon the journey can gain some helpful insight from my mistakes, my successes and the lessons I learned along the way.
Dear May 2016 “Me,”
If I remember correctly, you are currently quite stressed because you made the mistake of taking really hard classes in your senior year of college while also applying to medical school. On top of that scheduling stress, you also had to wait until the very last second for the acceptance that led you to where you are now. You’re about to graduate, but you won’t really have the time or energy to enjoy it.
First of all, you should know that it’s okay. A lot of what happened throughout senior year was far beyond your control. Your experience wasn’t really fun or “fair,” if such a thing exists. But you fought like crazy and you survived an illness that, thanks to a TED talk sent to you by your greatest mentor at UAB, you will soon learn leaves seventy-five percent of its victims homebound. You climbed to the top often feeling as though you had nothing and, yes, often as only a shell of yourself. But you made it, and that alone is something to cherish every day.
I want you to know that parts of the journey are only going to get harder. As you get healthier, you’ll become more aware of what you have lost and just how much your background has put you at a disadvantage. Sometimes, you’ll feel like you care less and that you just need the day to be over or like all you want to do is catch up on the sleep you’ve been missing out on for years. You may also find yourself in the terrible spot of finally feeling healthy enough to share your story with those around you but being physically unable to communicate the words in your heart well enough to do justice to your experience.
Fortunately, you should also know that overall, you are going to be happier than you could have imagined in Birmingham. You are going to find your true “fit,” your stride in academics and a way to use your talents to stand out as best as you can. You will be more comfortable than ever with your identity, and you will make amazing friends. Your road to UAB was a little different, so be careful with how you share your story. I wish I had done it better. Still, your peers will give you a chance and grow to love you, and that is an amazing gift.
You will also find arguably the best mentors in the world here. Use them more, particularly in your first summer. The hardest part of beginning a new journey is often the initial transition, and there is no shame in asking for help! Your mentors will not think any less of you. And again, you should know … the bumps in the transition will be worth it. The first time you hold a patient’s hand during a tough time will mean the world to both of you, and you won’t regret going down this path for even a second.
Finally, if I could give some advice that, knowing you (me), I think would be helpful: Be more confident in who you are and what you know. Speak up when you’ve studied something and can answer even part of a question. Don’t let your fear of not knowing a small piece of the information stop you from at least trying. Know that you are not perfect, but you can contribute something valuable to your class and to your field. Yes, you have faced terrible setbacks, and you may feel as though you have missed out or are behind in some things. Yet, your struggles and your journey will help you empathize more deeply with your patients, and this will become one of your strongest assets.
In the harder times, know that people are willing to listen and to help. They believe in you, and you don’t have to constantly “prove” your intelligence once you are here. Ask for what you need. Focus your energy not on worrying about your abilities, but on figuring out exactly what will help you succeed and being confident enough to ask for it. It will make your life in medical school with a chronic illness so much easier, and you will find yourself happier than ever.
You can do this. You’ll fall, but you’ll rise, too.