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On Staying Grounded

I was not happy when I was accepted to medical school, not like I thought I would be. In the hours and days that followed that fateful email, feelings of shock, sadness and nervousness jostled for dominance in my mind as I processed the information.

Had I been younger, I may have had a different reaction. As an older applicant however, the opportunity to study medicine somehow felt like a threat, a destabilizing force in my current phase of life. To make room for the rigorous demands of medicine, I felt like I needed to dismantle all that I had cultivated for the past two years: an alternative career in global health, a presence in the creative writing space and some semblance of financial independence. As I began to negotiate reduced commitments to my employers and other roles, I felt loss for the permutations of myself that may never be realized now that medicine was to be my focus. I felt loss for who I was, knowing who I was about to become.

My unease only intensified once I logged into social media and saw a torrent of congratulatory posts. I understood the sentiment but still, I wondered: did my peers know what awaited them on this path ahead? Must I too put on a smile and join them, lest I appear ungrateful for the privilege of studying medicine in Canada? In those early days, I felt estranged from a community I had not even met, wondering if anyone would understand.

All these feelings unsettled me. I had chosen to pursue this career, didn’t I? I had been deliberate, no? I had applied for the past eight years with hardly a gap in between cycles, each time reflecting on ways to improve my application. I had invested time into refining my essays and interview practice, like many others, all the while facing rejection after rejection. Yet now, when I had finally achieved my long-held goal, joy was fleeting and pride repulsed me.   

Was I meant for medicine if I wasn’t happy? Feeling untethered, I thought back to the million other moments of uncertainty and vulnerability, before I entered medicine. I thought back to when I was a new server, determined to explain a 200+ menu to an elderly man who did not know how to read. When I resorted to signing “Look, big fish!” to alert my deaf client to the breaching pilot whales beside our boat. Or all the times I held my grandmother’s hand in her hospital bed, both of us silently awaiting answers long into the night.

When I recall these memories, I know I am capable of striving anyways and hoping anyways during new transitions and the unexpected, just as I had done as a server, as a caregiver, as a granddaughter. I find comfort in reminding myself that it is natural for change to provoke a spectrum of often conflicting emotions, just as our own mortality may provoke the paradoxical mantra of memento mori, memento vivere (“remember you must die, so remember to live”).

Studying medicine is still a sobering endeavor for me. However, as I progress in my medical training, I hope to remember that the challenges will be balanced by the many meaningful and joyful moments as well. Perhaps then I may allow myself to embrace the moments more fully, in all of their complexity and wisdom.

Brianna Cheng (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

The University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine

Brianna Cheng is a first year medical student at The University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine in Canada. In 2020, she graduated from McGill University with a Master's of Science in epidemiology. She writes creative nonfiction in her free time and hopes to continue her interests in narrative medicine after graduating medical school.