Pull Up Your Compression Socks

Some of my friends and family have asked how I study so much. Others just give me a funny look, shake their head, and say becoming a doctor is too much school. And, to be honest, I mostly agree.

And that’s were compression socks come in.

When I was studying for my first board exam (aka STEP 1 which is a 7-hour exam that lightly touches most topics in medicine from skin rashes to embryological development) I started wearing compression socks. Every day before sitting at my desk with mate and breakfast and before firing up my computer, I’d spend a few moments pulling on the rainbow or patterned compression socks I’d chosen for the day. I’d never worn compression socks before I started studying for STEP 1 – not while hiking multiple 10-mile plus hikes a week, not while working 10-hour shifts on my feet, and not while training for marathons on city streets.

But studying from well before dawn to well past dark did me in. The truth is that studying all day is terribly grueling in the most passive way imaginable. The body rebels against stillness, and my bodying not only rebelled but went to war. My calves became so tight I could hardly walk. They’d throb at night. They’d throb in the morning. My shoulders and back were full of knots. My hamstrings constricted to a fraction of their normal length. I have a standing desk. It only made my hips tight. And. Yet. The studying had to be done. To help get through the hours, I’d stretched when I could. My workout routine become very consistent because without it I couldn’t concentrate.

The compression socks fixed my calves. I discovered them by accident. My partner wears them at work to avoid varicose veins, and one day I tried on some of his socks. It was a game changer; I could study all day and my legs would be okay. Just okay, but okay was way better than terrible.

It seems a bit dramatic to say it feels like your body is going to turn to stone simply because you sit still too much. “How do you study so much?” family would ask me in the final weeks leading up to my exam. I never exactly knew how to answer. And now I realize why – because studying  in medical school is less about the “how” and more about the “why.”

Why do I study so much?

It comes down to the end. The goal. The reason I bothered to enter medicine at all. It is only knowing where I wish to go that makes studying so much that I must wear compression socks worth it. I didn’t come to medicine because I wanted to study all day. I entered medicine because curing diseases and helping people through sickness is the professional contribution I wish to make to our world. I had plenty of time before starting school to explore many different professions. But, the one that captivated me was medicine. Medicine combines puzzles, science, and true stories. I study so much because every piece of information about symptoms and labs and geography and humans is a tool that might help me understand what is ailing a patient. I don’t study because I like it, I study because I want all the knowledge tools I can fit into my toolbox brain so that when I meet someone’s grandmother, someone’s father, someone’s friend, someone’s brother in a moment when their health is faulting…I know how to help them heal. 

Goodbye For Now Vermont

It had been over 2 years since I’d set foot in the US and almost a decade since I’d lived in Vermont when I returned 5 years ago. In my time away, I’d forgotten that men might choose to grow beards, plaid shirts are stylish in some people’s eyes, and baggy pants on men (and women) are normal in some regions of the globe. I’d just come from a place where those things – beards, plaid, and baggy pants – were only seen on people experiencing homeness and overheating Peace Corps volunteers clearly out of place in the Paraguayan sun.

Yet, despite the plaid, the cold, and the lack of sun Vermont was better than I remembered it. It was nice being in a place where I was confident everyone I talked to knew how many legs a chicken has (I’ve met people in the urban US who don’t). When I arrived, I wasn’t too worried about liking Vermont. I thought that I’d just come back to start my journey to medical school and that was all. Vermont had more in mind.

I started my pre-med classes which can easily be summarized like this: I’d write a lab report then revise it until it was so boring it made me yawn. Only if I was absolutely bored reading a lab report could I be sure I’d get an A on it.

As part of the journey to medical school, I became an EMT. I remember being petrified showing up for me first EMT shift. My nerves eased when my crew chief (who’d started working on ambulances over a decade before I was born) told me in a matter-of-fact voice that the crew would not let me kill anyone. Our crew would have dinner together every shift (unless we got a call and had to jump in the ambulance). We’d talk about patient cases, science, sci-fi, trucks, and cake. We’d get 2 am calls. I learned to write patient reports in the middle of the night. I practiced finding things to talk about with anyone – an important skill when you have a stable patient and a 30 plus-minute ambulance ride to the hospital. I saw hoarder houses. I learned what it looks like when people fall and can’t get up. I saw what happens when a blood sugar gets too low. I reinforced the knowledge that drunk humans are poor historians.

After running all night (that’s what we called being on the ambulance responding to calls), I’d change into my business-very-casual work clothes and go to work. Then class. Then lab. The hours studying merged as they always do. But, as I prepared for the MCAT (an entrance exam for med school) I knew exactly who to ask to explain some of the physics concepts that weren’t sticking – the brilliant kid with the Vermont accent on my ambulance crew. He’d driven trucks almost as long as he’d been walking and hadn’t done much school. He was smart and if he’d wished to follow different stars he could have. 

“I don’t know the physics equations or anything,” he said when I asked if he could explain how hydraulic lifts work and the physics of pistons.

“That’s not an issue, you understand the concepts,” I said.

I could do pages of equations and get the answer, but it was the meaning behind the symbols and numbers I wanted. And as he drew out a dump truck to explain hydraulics, drawing to explain just as my father and step-father always do, I realized that I liked the people in Vermont more than I’d expected I would.

School, my first job after returning to Vermont, and my time on the ambulance ended around the same time. I transitioned to a new job as an EMT in the emergency department (ED). I learned how to place IVs and draw blood. I saw how the brain, heart, and bones can break. I sat with families as their loved ones died. I saw babies be born and people smile despite the unluckiest circumstances. I learned from fellow EMTs, nurses, and other key players in the ED. The ED attracts fiery spirits and I enjoyed being among them. The patients came and went – suicidal thoughts, dog bite, chest pain, weird rash, car crash, fall, stroke, homeless, ski accident, rape, stomach pain – and I learned about humanity. Healthcare gave me a new angle from which to view Vermont. I saw the stoic Vermonters I’d known growing up. I saw people who had just immigrated to this frigid, snowy state. I met people who have the lives that make up the opioid epidemic. I met folks like me and very different from me.

The people of Vermont gave me a window into medicine. I got into medical school and I decided to study at our state school.

While much of my time in Vermont has been centered on learning medicine, that is not all Vermont has been. I rediscovered the mountains and the forests. I spent countless hours walking along Lake Champlain. I heard the hermit thrush sing as I wandered in the forest. I was reminded how both loud and quiet the trees are. Between the mountaintops and the lake, I also found my life partner. We were hiking and feasting buddies at first, but life has a way of pushing the limits of friendship. I also found friends with whom I cackle and giggle, enjoy the sunset and a stroll, and who I know are standing by ready for anything when the going gets tough. And the going is tough sometimes because becoming a doctor is a long road.

Since returning to Vermont, I rediscovered why Vermonters are stubborn, fierce, loving, and independent – just spend a winter here and you’ll understand. And, while Vermont has been so much more than I imagined, I must say goodbye for now. Every time I leave a place, I can not promise I’ll return for good or stay away forever. I can only promise that the people and hidden hallows that shaped me while I was here will always be with me no matter where I am. As I look ahead to the last years of medical school, I plan to complete them in Connecticut (my Vermont medical school has a clinical partnership there).

With excitement that I’m moving once again to a neighborhood where we speak Spanish and with a heavy heart for the dearest friends I’ve left in my home state let me say, “Until we meet again dear Vermont, may the snow be deep in winter and the summer be sparkly and green.”

Resilience

Not so long ago, a couple of brilliant new medical students asked me how many notecards I do a day. “Doing a notecard” means quizzing yourself on its contents and making progress in remembering the information it contains so you can answer test questions on the topic. Talking about the number of notecards we do daily is typical shop talk in medical school—everyone is trying to figure out exactly how to learn the mountain of information that makes up medicine. Almost everyone decides early on in their medical school career that the only way to learn what we must learn is with notecards. But, what is the perfect number to do in a day?

I avoided answering those new medical students’ question about how many cards I do a day. I wanted to help but, it’s an unanswerable question. I am not a robot. If I were a robot, I’d do something like 500-1000 notecards a day. But that’s not how life works. Some nights I don’t sleep well. Some days I have meaningless meetings that take up the best study hours. I gotta eat. I gotta move my body. Some days, it’s just too sunny to stay glued to my desk. Sometimes I’m tired and I retain nothing. Sometimes I get bad news and I’m sad. Sometimes I’m sick. Sometimes I’m on fire and I cruise through notecards like a genius.

We talk a lot about resilience in medical school. Here are the typical discussion questions:

  • What is resilience?
  • Why is resilience important?
  • Can resilience be taught?
  • How does one become resilient?

Thinking about notecards led to me some answers. Here they are:

What is resilience? Why is resilience important?

Google defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” With that definition, it’s obvious that when you’re doing very challenging things like learning medicine it helps to be resilient. Becoming a doctor is a long process and you’re guaranteed to make a lot of mistakes. The only way you’ll make it to the “end” is by becoming an expert in self pep-talks and getting up when you fall.  

Can resilience be taught?

I don’t think so. Not once, ever, has any class, piece of advice, or discussion made me better able to endure a hardship. Every hardship I’ve endured was because I decided to bear it. I had family and friends who supported me along the way, but the healing and “how to do better next time” was mine alone to formulate. But, while I don’t believe we can teach others resilience, I do believe that resilience is learned.

How does one become resilient?

We become resilient by being challenged. The folks who are most resilient are the ones who have endured the most hardship. That’s not to say all people who have faced many obstacles are resilient; it’s just to say that you can’t be resilient if you never face a challenge. If you’ve never failed or been hurt than you can’t know what it’s like to dust off the dirt from a fall and try again. Without challenge, you can’t learn how to adapt your plan as life unfolds new surprises.

This principle is the basis of the answer to the notecard question I was asked. How many notecards do I do a day? I have NEVER, not once, done as many notecards as I hoped to do in a day. Yet, I have passed all my classes comfortably. In fact, not only have I never completed as many notecards as I wanted to…when I started medical school, I didn’t use notecards. Not using notecards was a grave mistake. When I started using them my grades improved by about 5% and, for the first time in my medical career, I had time to exercise, sleep, and socialize a sustainable amount. I switched to notecards ¾ of the way through my first semester of medical school. I was terrible at making notecards. But, I gave them a fair trial because I knew how I was studying before notecards wasn’t working. I had two choice at that point: sink or swim. Swimming involves adaptability. I decided I would rather be an otter than a rock in the deluge that is medical knowledge.

Deciding to use notecards may seem trivial until you consider that I’ve bet around $100,000 (so far) on becoming a doctor. It seems trivial except when you consider that it took me 6 years (of work) from the time I decided I wanted to become a physician to the day I got to decide how to study my medical school material. It seems trivial until you realize that I still have at least 5 years, probably 8, and many licensing exams between me and practicing medicine. The stakes are high. I could have failed upon switching to using notecards. But, I thought it was worth a try and I knew I would fail if I kept up what I was doing.

This past exam (fast-forward to my second year of medical school) was the first time I finally studied all the notecards I’d made for an exam. It’s been a little less than a year since I starting using notecards to study. I’m way better at using notecards than when I started. But, my journey isn’t over. This spring I take the biggest exam of my life (my first board exam – a national exam everyone who becomes a doctor must pass). How well I do on that exam heavily influences what residencies I can apply to and, ultimately, what type of doctor I’m allowed to become. It’s scary. My daily notecard count is only one part of how I will prepare for that exam. The number of notecards I did daily last year, over the summer, and now is different. How many notecards I do today will be different from how many I do each day when I’m in the middle of studying for that looming board exam.

What challenges and failure come to show us is that things can be done in many ways. They also show us that we can only control ourselves. For example, I can’t change how much information I’m expected to know for an exam. I can decide how to learn the information. Resilience is not complaining about something that never could have been. It’s about deciding to make your dream reality. It’s about jumping into the flood, scared out of your mind, with a willingness to evolve until you get to where you’re meant to be.

On Love

When from out of the blanket burrito you’ve created, like extra salsa, your blue eyes emerge, blinking and dazed as if they’ve never seen light. You seem stunned as if you didn’t expect the sun to rise as it has every other day. I’m glad you’re here.

When we each sit, heads bent over our studies, the sun dancing across your hair and alighting on our plants—we created quite a jungle house when we moved in together—I smile before diving back into the world of medicine.

When you scamper away, a mountain goat of a human, taking off when you see a steep incline with rocks on the trail ahead, I chuckle. I’ll find you at the top of the pitch, eyes glistening, waiting. Maybe a kiss before we forge onward. And when we get to the summit we see the world unfold before us. Each of us thinking our own thoughts, but knowing somehow our thoughts fit together like the parts of an ice cream sundae—dazzling all on their own but grander together.

When I’m sitting on the couch, studying or writing, and you ask “Are you hungry darling?” As I light the candle for the dinner table I’m already full.

It’s those times when love seems like such an obvious thing. And, as happy as I am alone, I’m glad you decided to journey with me.

Memory

When it doesn’t occur in an explosion, change often happens in such small increments that we don’t notice it happening. Medical school changed me in both ways. The start of school launched me into a new world of academia. I was pushed to study more efficiently and more than I ever had. I adapted to a new lifestyle. These changes were dramatic but expected. Starting a new job, which is how I view school, is usually that way. However, looking back at my first year of medical school (so far), I changed in unexpected ways that were not obvious in the moment.

Not so long ago I was learning brain anatomy. The topic was interesting and boring at the same time. The individual pieces of information were simple, however, woven together into pathways and functional groups these bits of the brain were quite complex and somewhat indeterminate. As I was considering several parts of the brain involved in forming memories, I found my mind wandering beyond the curriculum. Memory is an interesting thing.

My sister has always had a good memory. She can read a document 3 times and recite in perfectly; this worked well during her acting career. She always remembers things I’ve long forgotten from when we were kids. My memory has never been like hers. As a high school student, I thought that memory was an innate quality. I thought memory wasn’t something that could be trained and changed. I took that belief to college where I worked hard. I’ve always known that most things can be achieved if I work hard enough. Since college and until now, I haven’t thought too much about memory.

Medical school has made me reconsider memory. As I thought about the corticospinal pathway carrying motor signals from the brain and brainstem to the body and the anterolateral pathway carrying temperature and pain signals in a chain of neurons up to the brain, I realized that these things were complicated. But, they didn’t seem as complicated as they would have back in August when I started medical school.

These days, I find myself reading words I can’t pronounce and remembering them. I find myself reading dense documents about the presentation of a disease or the features of a drug and remembering more than I did when I read comparable materials in October.

As I was studying what parts of the brain are responsible for different aspects of memory—working, long-term, emotional—I realized that I have trained my memory since starting medical school. And, while my brain’s approach to remembering is still different from that of my sister’s, memory formation is dynamic. The brain is plastic just like the rest of life. Considering this, I’m curious to see how much my brain will change by the time I reach the end of medical school. Residency. And beyond. 

But, first, time to finish the last 4 weeks of my first year of medical school – hours that will be spent learning many aspects of the central nervous system beyond memory and brain structure.

The Mountains

These days between the hours of studying, the doctorhood quest unfolding slowly and quickly at the same time, I find myself hiking whenever time allows. It’s difficult to describe what I find in the forest as I climb to a mountain’s peak. Some days I go quickly, not observing the trees and moss as I forge up the trail. Other days I step slowly, methodically looking at the ferns and the rocks and the sun rays that scatter across the forest floor.

Sometimes my mind buzzes with thoughts—of friends, family, and school. Of puzzles I still have left to solve or chores that await me when I get home. But, more often as time goes, I find my mind mostly empty. An uncommon feeling in my daily life in town. As I get lost in thoughtless contemplation, the chipmunks make me smile as they scuttle around me and the grouse make me jump as they burst into flight before I see them. The sound of their wings is in stark contrast to the silent trees around me.

I stop for a sip of water partway up a steep stretch of trail. My forehead is crusted with salt from sweating. I feel my heart pounding. The wind picks up and the trees creek and groan. I look up and see their branches waving. Even a brief pause allows my breath to slow before I hoist my backpack to my shoulders again. Onward.

I’ve done enough trails to know which rocks are most likely to make me lose my footing. I avoid them. Mud jumps from the trail to my pants. The trail gets steeper and I shed a jacket layer. Once taking off the layer, I climb higher and the wind gets stronger. I put the jacket back on. It’s a dance of layers—just enough to stay warm, not so many that I roast. I sweat regardless.

As I climb the final pitch to the mountain top I have on my warmest layer—in summer just a windbreaker and in winter a hefty coat. I hike so much, there are many days when I get to the highest rock and there is no view. Clouds never did bother me, so the clearness of the day doesn’t impact my decision to take to the hills. When it is sunny and clear at the summit, the landscape around my mountain stretches away from me. I think about what all the distant hills and valleys have seen, countless stories they can’t tell me.

Some days the wind threatens to push me over as I pause at the summit. On days when I can see the mountains beyond my mountain, I ignore the wind and take time to watch the sunshine. The rolling hills and fields below are a patchwork of cloud shadows and sun patches. Beyond them are the mountains of some other state. When I hike in Vermont, the mountains beyond are always pointer than the one I climbed. The green mountains were scraped by glaciers and, therefore, have softer features than their neighbors in New York and New Hampshire.

I don’t doddle as I descend to my car. My heart is filled by the fresh air of the summit. I’m ready to return to the hustle of regular life by the time I get back to the parking lot. At the same time, as I turn my car toward home, I’m already daydreaming of my next hike. The mountains don’t let me forget them, no matter what adventures I have waiting for me in the lowlands. 

Today I’m Grateful

The past few months have a been a tornado. I’m 3 weeks out from finishing my first semester of medical school. What has “med school” meant for me so far? 4 hours or more of studying a day no matter how many hours I spend in class. Showering the formaldehyde smell out of my hair because I’ve spent hours in the cadaver lab dissecting or practicing structure identification. Discussing the ethics of assisted suicide, abortion, and patient consent. Considering how to evaluate research. Practicing physical exams and asking patients about their health.

But, even on days before an exam, when I’m exhausted and uncertain I know half of what I should, I’m excited to be doing what I do. I know how to feel a heartbeat through someone’s skin. I know how to watch a heart contracting using an ultrasound machine. I’ve held human hearts. I’ve explored their chambers and vessels. I know the path blood takes to and from the heart. I know what makes the heart beat. As the days pass, I know more and more about what makes human bodies function, how the body can break, and what we can do to fix it. For this intimate knowledge of life, I’m grateful.

These past weeks and months haven’t only been studying, despite how it feels at times. I’ve spent time with family. I’ve hiked many a mountain in both the sun, rain, light, and dark. I’ve eaten cake on mountain tops, carved jack-o-lanterns, and shared many a meal and snack with friends. I’ve walked up and down the hill from home to school while chatting with kindred spirits.

Friends new and old along with family aren’t all I’m grateful for this season. I also have a lovely home with a roommate with an eye for creating comfortable spaces where I can sip my mate peacefully. And, I have a partner who enjoys pie as much as I do. Helps keep life in order. Tells me my hair looks beautiful even when it’s greasy and fizzy (who knew hair could be both those things at the same time) and cooks me dinner so I can study.

I feel lucky this season. And, I’m grateful to have a few moments to soak in just how kind life can be. I hope your Thanksgiving is spent with people you care about or, at least, surrounded by tasty food. After all, the stomach feeds the heart. 

Goodbye 20s

Today I turn 30. I find myself in a place I didn’t dream of when I was 20. I live in a world I couldn’t have imagined when I was 10.

I’m in the throes of my first year of medical school. A whirlwind of biochemistry, anatomy, patient evaluation techniques, nerd jokes, and discussions of ethics and why access to health care is a right. But, that’s not all. This morning, I woke to the smell of cinnamon rolls and a bouquet of flowers. Since August, I didn’t just fall down the rabbit hole of medicine, but I might have fallen in love.

October last year, the last October of my 20s, I was forging through medical school applications. Diving into interviews. Wondering if any school would take me. If I was good enough. If I was going to ever be a doctor. I think the feelings I had while applying to medical school aptly summarize my 20s. The 10 years between 19 and 30, I spent self-doubting, reflecting, and growing. The doubt is largely gone now—for that, I’m stoked. My personality won’t allow me to stop reflecting and attempting to be a better, even as I race toward being old, and I think that’s good.

This October comes with its own challenges and misgivings, but there is something surprisingly settling about 30. It helps that a weight lifted when I started school. And though I spend hours daily learning 3-4 letter acronyms that stand for proteins that stand for whole signaling pathways that keep you alive when they work and make you sick when they go wrong, I’m happy underneath it all. I’m happy because I’m exactly where I hoped I would be last year. I’m happy because where I am feels right. It is not often that life follows the course of my plan, so this birthday I’d like to take a moment to celebrate just being here.

Today, I’m grateful for all the people who make me feel loved. I’m grateful for the friends who are there when I need them and who share my joyous moments, who share my love for jokes only a health science dweeb can begin to find funny, and who listen patiently to the latest episode in the chronicles of kombucha making. I’m grateful for the people who have supported me, helped me learn, and pushed me to think differently and be better.

With the joy of being here in mind, bring it on 30. I’m ready for a new decade.

Climbing Mountains

One year when I was young we celebrated my mom’s birthday by hiking a nearby mountain. Our family has loved mountain adventures since our beginning, so it seemed like a perfect way to celebrate another good year.

The hike was beautiful and challenging and magical in the way hours spent in the woods while climbing a slope always are. When we got to the top we settled on the peak rocks to enjoy the view, eat snacks, and let our heartrates drip back to resting. Us kids sat down, pulling out our normal fare—peanuts, bread, cheese, among other easy-to-pack items.

My mom wore a happy smirk as she opened her backpack. First, she unpack a stack of plates and forks. Then came some bags containing several layers of chocolate cake. Then came the Tupperware with the sauce for between the cake layers. And then the whipped cream…She’d also brought sparkling cider.

My mother had secretly packed and carried an entire black forest cake up the mountain. That’s dedication, determination, and the proper way to start a new era.

I’m turning 30 this year, so I’ve been thinking about birthdays a bit because it seems like ending my twenties might be a big deal. I can’t really think of a better way to nod goodbye to my first complete decade of adulthood than cake on top of a mountain. There is something about icing that makes the horizon seem promising and clarifies the path you’ve already trod.

Friendship as a Trendline

When I was young and going through a rough patch with one friend or another, my mother always told me friendships go in waves. Sometimes you’re high on them, doing the most exciting things and seeing each other all the time. Sometimes it’s as though you don’t know each other (except you do, because you remember all the times that are past). I knew she was right, but when I was young I hadn’t had friends for long enough to see what she meant.

These days I’m not old, but I have friends who have been in my life for over 20 years and new ones who just arrived. Each friendship is different; the relationship components undulate as ocean waves do—always the same motion (hi…bye), never the same content (what is said and done, where and when we encounter). It’s only the movement, up and down, that’s constant over these relationships and across relationships.

When I think about friendships as waves, I envision the trendline as straight across with a sine wave tracing the points of each friendship. If you plot every friendship on the same graph, some will have wide peaks and dips, some will have steeper and more frequent slopes. But, regardless of the shape of each wave, when you follow the trendline as a representation of your life unfolding, you find that your time has been filled with moments shared with people you enjoy. Despite all the movement—especially the absences of certain individuals at certain times—you are surrounded by people you consider friends most of the time. In this way, the trendline makes you unshakable when one friendship wave becomes an outliner by dipping too low or dropping off the graph completely. And, also, it’s the trendline that helps you steady yourself if a friend becomes a partner and their friendship wave falls into phase (in sync) with your life wave magnifying your own emotional ups and downs.

For me, the visual of friends as waves (like an ocean view) takes a lot of the pressure off each moment because it makes me see them as part of something larger. It’s reassuring to realize that I can enjoy each crest before it crashes on the literal or metaphorical beach because it will be followed by others.