The journey as an aspiring medical student is challenging. The entirety of your undergraduate degree is focused on attaining a bachelor’s degree. These years are filled with rigorous and mandatory prerequisites for applying to medical school. In addition to receiving the best grade point average achievable, it is imperative to demonstrate interest, personality and drive through clinical volunteering, hobbies, leadership and other extracurricular activities. The culmination of this journey towards medical school acceptance is the most coveted accomplishment in a pre-medical career. When I started medical school, I was ecstatic. This was one more step closer to the end goal.
I remember my medical school orientation fondly. As 135 future classmates crammed into one of the learning classrooms, the excitement was palpable. Natural lighting from the sunny Florida weather illuminated the room of eager faces. We were finally going to learn the art of medicine — what we had spent years striving for. The University of Florida College of Medicine brought a conglomeration of speakers for the week, in addition to activities designed to foster bonding and camaraderie within the class. One of the speakers brought up the concept of burnout. Burnout — which is prevalent among health care workers — describes the emotional, physical and mental exhaustion oftentimes faced by working professionals. In fact, approximately one in three physicians will experience burnout during their careers. Although I had heard of burnout during my pre-medical journey, I would not truly understand what this term meant until my second year of medical school.
Like the experience of others in my class, I struggled to keep up with lectures in the first week alone. Coupled with clinical requirements and volunteering, the transition to medical school was brutal. I distinctly remember crying to my parents after the first week of class due to the sheer amount of information presented. The first few months were a rough adjustment, but by the second semester, I felt like I had a grasp of my daily schedule. Yet life threw another curveball at me, and in the spring of 2020, the world was introduced to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic was jarring. People were losing their jobs and loved ones. Everything came to a standstill for the first time in years. The orderly lifestyle we were accustomed to disintegrated. People became homebound, and issues like police brutality and domestic violence gained more prominence. In medical school, my classmates and I were struggling during this period. I remember studying for our renal exam, the last one for the first year. Around this time COVID cases and fatalities spiked with no end in sight. On top of this, global protests erupted in response to the George Floyd shooting. Through this all, we were expected to focus on passing this exam. I felt like I was in a firestorm. I felt hopeless, helpless and drained. Medical school was a mental struggle as much as it was a physical one.
During this time I had been struggling with many events happening in my life. My health deteriorated as I started my second year in medical school. I suffered from intense nausea and abdominal pain, only getting four or five consistent hours of sleep per day. These health issues had started and worsened during the second year, eventually culminating in an emergency cholecystectomy. Personal struggles happened in my family, which severely impacted my mental health. I was not sleeping or eating properly. I felt as if my mind had formed a mental roadblock towards my studies. By the time second year ended, I knew that starting rotations would not be fair to myself or my future patients. But I was scared to take a break because I felt I had pushed my whole life to get to this point. Did it really make sense to stop now?
The truth was a small part of me felt like I was failing. As medical professionals, we talk about the concept of imposter syndrome, that feeling of incompetence despite proof of success. As I grappled with studying for my first medical board exam, these feelings consumed my thoughts as I watched my classmates prepare for rotations. What am I doing wrong? Is something wrong with me? If they can do it, why not you?
These questions flashed through my head for weeks. The projected image of infallibility for physicians and medical students is grounded in its roots. But I was not alone. My journey to my final decision for a leave of absence introduced me to other students in similar predicaments. One student pursued a leave of absence after finding out her father had been diagnosed with a serious health condition. Another struggled with depression and anxiety to the point where it had impacted his studying. One of my classmates had wrestled through a year riddled with complications from the disease. A mentor chose a break to pursue further research and a mental reprieve.
Their sentiments about taking time off were the same as mine. Not only did they feel reinvigorated after their year off, but they also were mentally ready to put their best efforts toward their studies and their future patients. And while everyone had a different reason to pursue a leave of absence, it became clear to me that there was a common theme: the need to stop, breathe and listen. Medical school is temporary, but life continues. We can either break or adapt in a way that is healthy for our physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Taking a year off from medical school to pursue a master degree in public health has been one of the best years of my life. Not only was I able to pursue my passion for public health, but I made new relationships and had experiences I never imagined possible. I pursued my love for photography, went back to prioritizing my physical health by starting CrossFit, continued my art and traveled more than I had previously.
Although I have not reached the end of my medical school career yet, I wanted to share an important message for medical students and others in general: take time for yourself. If it requires a step away from school or work, do it. You may feel an urgency to complete your education as quickly as possible, but remember your mental and physical health come first.
To be the best, we must be our best. That is what this future doctor prescribes.