In a profession where we are trained to fight death around any corner, any day, students need to not only understand how to handle death in a medical setting but also how to cope with the weight we bring upon ourselves in end-of-life situations. No matter our past experiences, no matter our clinical training or how academically prepared we think we may be, it can be traumatic to feel the burden of responsibility for the loss of a life.
For me, one of these moments occurred during my neurology clerkship, a week into working in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I took part in a meeting with my team to update a family on the status of their loved one. It was my first time in this type of meeting, especially for a patient that I was directly involved in caring for. To our team of medical professionals, he is our 51-year-old male patient with a 45-pack-year smoking history but to his family, he’s a son, a husband and a father. All they understood about his condition up to this point was that Mr. R had a heart attack that led to some swelling in his brain.
My friends and I wished we knew how to flourish from the beginning, so we decided to create Wards & Boards, a peer-to-peer mentorship mobile app. The app compiled advice from fourth-year medical students who completed each clerkship designed for third-year students beginning their first rotation.
A few years ago, I found CrossFit. Since then, I have spent a large share of my free time training and improving my health and fitness. As with any sport, there was a large learning curve. However, as I trained, my mind and body adapted. I made strides both athletically and mentally that I never thought were possible. I never imagined that this preparation and development would translate to a seemingly opposing task: medical school.
Anxiety defined me more when I denied its existence than it does now that I’ve faced it head-on. Maybe the anxiety helped me get to where I was, but it was a burden I didn’t have to bear — especially not alone. Even knowing how important mental health is as a future physician, it embarrassed me to admit that I might need a prescription to help me cope with my fears and anxieties.
I am worried that these stories of heroism are harming the very people they celebrate. By creating an ideal “health care worker” as an endlessly altruistic individual, it stigmatizes the medical workers who refuse to take on these risks — even though there are many legitimate reasons not to.
And with scientific advancements came cures and treatments that the healers of antiquity could have never imagined. However, these advances came at the cost of appreciating a holistic approach to health. How pitiful is it when a profession which was once completely focused on healing the whole person must now devote entire conferences and countless seminars to finding ways of injecting that back into both its practitioners and the people they serve?
A first-year medical student’s stress and anxiety begin to take physical form as she navigates her first year of medical school.
You don’t have to sit in silence and painfully nod along with an attending’s racist, misogynistic lectures because you’re their medical student. You don’t need to pick the skin off your cuticles to stop yourself from replying. You don’t need to learn how to hide your grimaces behind your mask because you know you’ll have to listen to them attack your identity for the next several weeks.
While it is easy to feel stuck and unhappy in this current life-box, I recognize that we must take a few deep breaths and understand that this too shall pass. And that this did pass for all the physicians before us and will pass for all the physicians after us. And we will all get past this together.
I was anxious because I was used to moving at such a fast pace that slamming on the breaks gave me whiplash. I was desperate for things to do because I had forgotten how to slow down and relax — how to just be. Slowly, I began to see the opportunity that quarantine had presented me with.
A medical student, to whom I will refer as X, posted on their social media page they were going to kill themselves. Their letter was direct, raw and, as many suicide notes tend to be, apologetic. They explained they felt they no longer had the strength to keep fighting; it was simply “time for them to go.”