My decision to return to school to pursue a doctorate degree in medicine came as a shock to many. I had enjoyed a successful career as a physical therapist at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country, The Hospital for Special Surgery, in the four years preceding this choice. Many people wondered why I would leave an already successful position that I worked so hard to achieve and start over from scratch.
My passion for health care and medicine grew past the threshold of physical therapy (PT), and I found myself wanting to do more. I wanted to be more involved in patient care. I wanted to be one of the people performing procedures for patients. I wanted to be more involved in making patients get better. At the time, it was difficult to express the feelings I had, and describing a feeling can often seem like an impossible task. So every time I was asked why I had changed careers, I would always respond with the same, “It’s just something that I feel I need to do.” In response, I found skepticism and disapproval with a few scattered voices of support for this decision. No matter what was said, the negativity would not change the feeling I had, and no one could dissuade me from my desire to have a larger role in patient care.
Transitioning back into the student experience was an unexpected challenge. When I speculated on the reasons for the difficult time I was having, I began to understand what had caused so many people to question my decision to return to school. My experience in medicine was both my biggest advantage and my biggest disadvantage. My previous knowledge and real-life training made it difficult to be fully attentive. During our clinical skills sessions, I would think that I had thousands of hours of clinical experience, so why would I need to re-learn basic skills? Why should I have to listen to upper-class medical students who did not have the experience that I had? As the year progressed, I started to fall behind and things really weren’t going how I predicted they would. I was just barely passing the exams, and I was struggling to keep up with all of my assignments. I had envisioned myself being able to breeze through my classes and that this would be like a long review session of my previous studies. I knew I needed to figure out how to improve my current situation, so I began reflecting on the situation I was in, searching for clarity and strength.
One of my favorite philosophers, Bruce Lee, once said, “Empty your mind.” With a mentality clouded from previous experiences, I was not letting new experiences form in my mind. Learning can be exceedingly difficult when going into something with previous knowledge on the subject. I’m glad I realized this early enough to turn things around. I began approaching situations with an empty mind. Rather than compartmentalizing my two educational experiences, I was able to synthesize new material with the still valuable information from my past. In medical school, there is overlap with many things I learned in PT school. I treated the material like it was the same as in PT school and I’d just be able to review it briefly and learn it easily. That mindset was inhibiting me from learning the new material. Being open minded is easy, but the act of emptying your mind is an entirely different story. Having an open mind means starting with an empty bucket, but the act of emptying your mind involves starting with a full bucket and having to empty it only to fill it again. Instead of relying on information I learned before, I started treating the new material like it was my first time seeing it. Allowing myself to fully engage in all the new material opened my eyes to how much more there was to learn. When you think you know all there is to something, it makes it difficult to view it in any other way.
I now understand why so many people had disapproved of my decision to go back to medical school. They were envisioning themselves in my shoes, thinking there’s no way they would go through another long ordeal when they already had a successful career. Thinking with a full mind will only allow a person to draw on their previous lived and learned experiences, and this can make it impossible to accept new ideas. An example I can provide is with cereal and milk. When most people make cereal with milk, they add the cereal and then the milk. If someone came along and told them adding the milk first is actually the correct way of making it, most people would brush it off and not accept it. It is incredibly easy to fall into this way of thinking and most of the time it’s subconscious. I was guilty of this for a long time, and it took a great deal of self-reflection before I realized that I needed to change. The “empty my mind” approach has helped me tremendously throughout my time in medical school. My grades have seen a big improvement and my assignments are more enjoyable to complete. As I continue to improve, I will be taking my “empty my mind” approach with me.