I’m sitting by the window in a hospital room with my eight-year-old sidekick who is being treated for rhabdomysarcoma, here for chemotherapy. Sidekicks is a student-led initiative at UMass Medical School that matches medical students with pediatric oncology patients in order to build long-term, non-medical relationships. He is watching his favorite cartoons and so he is unresponsive to my attempts at engagement.
My own five-year anniversary of being in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma just passed last week. It was the day we had a chemotherapy lecture as part of our cancer course in my first year of medical school. I can’t believe it’s been five years; it feels like a century. It feels like it was a different person who went through all of that treatment, pain, and fear five years ago. I am now officially cured, according to oncologists, although I don’t really feel any different. It’s been a few days since that milestone and I have been reflecting on my path here to medical school and looking around me in lecture thinking how diverse each of my classmates’ experiences must be on their way to the same lecture hall.
I often tell people that being diagnosed with cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. Looking back, it’s easy to see how my life was very much off track — not being lived according to my values and principles. That event in my life marked one of many awakenings and subsequent transformations. It wasn’t long after completing treatment and being given a clean bill of health that I began thinking of changing careers and leaving that life behind. I soon was thinking about medicine. I still have moments daily when I feel the excitement and anticipation of practicing medicine. I’ve done some meaningful and rewarding things professionally in the last several years, but my largest area of growth has been personally and emotionally — an area I feel is preparing me to practice not the science of medicine, as I am learning in medical school, but the art of medicine. I’ve noticed in the few patient experiences we have as first year students how comfortable I feel in each situation. I never realized my classmates might not feel quite as comfortable yet. I’ve received comments from fellow classmates and from faculty about my natural rapport with patients that I never stopped to think about — it’s just how I act normally.
Medical school has challenged me in ways I never could have anticipated. Although the classwork has been heavy and challenging, I’ve been able to keep up having been through similarly vigorous engineering undergraduate and graduate programs. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the structure of classwork itself and the time outside of class would be most challenging. Previous educational experience proved challenging in the material itself, but now I find myself learning the material well but the pace, organization, and assessments create a much more challenging environment. My resilience has been tested in ways like never before, and I’ve been learning how to prioritize self-care so as to keep myself efficient with schoolwork and effective in my other pursuits.
Two years later…
I’m finally sitting down to finish my thoughts here and find myself in a completely different place than when I started. I suppose that’s to be expected. I just returned from watching my now ten-year-old sidekick play his final football game of the year. The odds were certainly not in his favor, but look at him now. He is back to being a kid again. No matter how hard I try, I can’t find any sense in what he went through, and when I ask him, he just says he’s glad it’s over. It’s hard to think he might be able to look back on his experience and see something positive in it like I have, but what do I know. I’m coming up on seven years cancer-free, and my sidekick is into his second year. We recently attended his mother’s wedding where she found us during the reception racing outside among the trees. I guess some of us never grow up.
I have no idea where my life is going, and when I try to think about third year and fourth year and what I am interested in, my head begins to spin. All I can do is look for those little coincidences, those signs that somehow are always there to show us the way. You know, those situations that seem to just happen without you trying. The ones where you feel comfortable, beyond thought or explanation. The ones that give you a glimpse of yourself at your best. Those moments you truly participate in a patient’s healing and know it without words or expression. They may be subtle and sometimes fleeting, especially in medical school, but they’re there. When I get caught up in all of the mental gymnastics to rationalize certain judgments about certain experiences and fields, I remind myself to step back and look for those signs. After all, it’s not too hard to believe I’m on the right path when medical school has given me so many opportunities for learning — like those with my sidekick.