From the Wards
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How to Find the Strength to Keep Going: Words of Advice from a Third-Year

It’s 4 a.m., and I’m sitting in the student call room eating dinner during a particularly busy night. A burrito has never tasted this good.

Here’s the truth: medical school isn’t glamorous. More often than not, it involves long hours and late nights. There will be days where you come home and fall asleep before eating dinner. There will be 10-hour surgical cases with no bathroom breaks and mornings where rounds take five hours. You will spend hours on hold with social services and you will run around the hospital like the gawky medical student you are, trying to track down paperwork.

On the roughest days and latest of nights, it is hard to find the strength to crawl into bed, wake up in the morning, and go back to the hospital. Tough experiences and unfriendly coworkers can aggravate that inner self-loathing and make you feel disgusted at yourself. A lack of rest, a newly developed caffeine habit, and an unhealthy dependence on granola bars doesn’t help.

So, what do you do to keep going?

I write down my memories and keep them in a jar to remind me why I am here. It serves as a break from my frantic struggles of transitioning between rotations and trying to choose a career and plan for the upcoming year.

This may seem a bit childish. A bit too nostalgic and perhaps a tad immature, but I can’t tell you how many times I have needed these little things this year.

I can’t forget how my very first patient on the wards told me that I was going to be a good doctor. I grin when I think of my little pediatric patient learning my name and telling me good morning every day when I went to see him. We watched Harry Potter together. And I won’t soon forget the words of a terminal cancer patient as he told me that my eyes sparkled like somebody in love. In a way, he was right. I was in love with what I did every day.

On my wall, I have a paper EKG strip with the exact moment where my patient with an irregular atrial fibrillation jumped back into a normal rhythm. It reminds me that human physiology is kind of amazing.

I connected with a patient over the socks I was wearing. A resident told me (jokingly) that she would fail me on my evaluation, just so I would have to repeat the rotation and spend more time with her. In my broken Spanish, I had the privilege of helping a woman give birth to a beautiful healthy baby. I’ve even accidentally met my little sister’s math teacher in the pediatric clinic during spring break.

I won’t forget the urologist salsa dancing with the scrub nurse in the OR before the beginning of a long case. I told a scared little girl stories about orthopedic surgeons and their space suits, right before she fell asleep on the operating table. I’ve had a resident physically boot me out of the hospital on a slow call night because “it’s Friday night, and you’re young, and you should go have a good time.”

Not all of my cherished memories are cheerful. I remember my last interactions with a patient before she passed away during the night. I wish I would have gone back to her room that night before leaving. Consoling a resident as she tearfully told me about a toddler who was dying of meningococcemia; watching frustrated parents snipe at me and threaten to leave the hospital against medical advice; being chased down the hall by a psychotic patient in her wheelchair, swearing angrily — I remember sometimes feeling so unbelievably useless.

There is nothing glorious about rushing to your first code blue. There is little beauty in watching a patient’s dying rattling breaths. There are no words to express the pain of watching the delivery of a brain-dead full-term infant. After events like these, there is only a gaping hole of disillusionment and discontent that wraps around you like a suffocating blanket.

I save my stories to remind me to feel in a time when I become so numb. For when I become immune to daily complaints of back pain and intermittent headaches. For when I forget the narratives that bring my patients to life, and I forget what brought me here.

I have been given the privilege to be privy to the tales of so many individuals. It is a gift that I can’t afford to squander. There is no parallel to the amount of trust a patient puts in my hands even though I am not yet a physician. With each passing day, I fall more in love with my job and my career. I hope those of you in medicine or planning to pursue a career in medicine feel the same way.

I urge you all to keep a jar, whether it is a physical container, a metaphorical room in your mind, or even notes or photos on your phone. Keep a jar with your most precious thoughts and anecdotes — they don’t have to be related to medicine. Fill it with the joy and the fear and the anticipation that each day brings. Stay upbeat and optimistic even when the real world begs to differ. Don’t forget why you are where you are. Don’t become immune to the pain and joy and suffering that surrounds you in each hospital setting.

Remember. Feel. And keep going.

Jarna Shah Jarna Shah (4 Posts)

Editor Emeritus: Former Medical Student Editor (2013-2015) and Physician Guest Writer

University of Illinois College of Medicine

Jarna Shah is an CA-2 resident in anesthesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is interested in the development of medical education, mentorship, and healthcare. She is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of in-House (, a sister publication of in-Training. In her free time, she bakes ridiculous desserts, practices martial arts, and writes novels every November.