Finding Purpose and Meaning

The patient was nicely dressed and collected. They sat with elegance as I chatted with them during their checkup. By most accounts they were doing well. They didn’t have many aching joints or the other common issues of people their age. But, as we finished going through all the normal appointment questions and checklist items for a primary care visit, the conversation turned to the main issue at hand: meaningful existence. 

The patient had recently moved from the south to the north to be close to their adult children. In moving, they had left behind the hair salon where they’d worked for many years and where they continued to work until moving. Nobody in their new, northern community would hire them as a hairdresser because of their age. This disappointed them. They were very energetic. They were involved in many clubs and had many social engagements weekly, yet, they found themselves depressed, tired, and empty. Nothing they were doing gave them the sense of purpose that working had.

We brainstormed together. If not work, could the patient volunteer? Where might they like to volunteer? Our town had many opportunities for volunteering. The patient jotted down a few nonprofit ideas and smiled. They said they’d consider it; it seemed better that sitting around doing pointless things.

Depression is common in the elderly. Among other things, it’s postulated that feelings of isolation and loss of purpose can contribute to depression. On an anecdotal level, I’ve heard many elderly patients describe feeling alone, especially when they’ve moved to be close to adult children and left behind an existing community their age or that they had been part of for a long time. Even children who visit frequently aren’t the same as having a whole community – especially a community that has also lived through the same decades and seen the same changes in the world. What’s more, many elderly people are retired or decrease their activity in work and volunteering. It’s easy to say that retirement and less work is good and that these wise people have worked their whole lives and deserve a rest. This is true; however, what I’ve also noticed anecdotally among the hundreds of patients I’ve met as a medical student, is that the happiest people are the people who have meaningful projects regardless of age.

This elderly patient is an example of someone who was driven to work well after they reached retirement age. Their case showed me that perhaps encouraging and supporting our elders to be active participants in their community would be helpful for their wellbeing. This seems especially important in a place like the US where many families are scattered all over the country and generations tend to live separately. There are many elderly folks who find meaning in caring for grandchildren as I’ve seen in other places like when I lived in Paraguay. However, we must remember that there are many elderly people who didn’t have children or who don’t wish to spend their days caring for their kids’ kids and that their need for meaningful activities is also valid. As we forge forward as a society, it seems prudent to keep this in mind and continue to support and develop programs that help an aging population remain active in their communities’ productivity and progress if they would like to be. Be it work, volunteering, or other projects in and out of the home.

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Anticipation

I live across from a café that is also as an event venue. The other weekend, I glanced out my window when music uncommon to my neighborhood wiggled through my window screens. My gaze fell upon empty tables perfectly spaced with little plant centerpieces, lawn games in the parking lot, a grill, and green cones outlining the event space. The event organizers meandered around arranged things, chatting, and smiling. Soon the guests would arrive; the evening would unfold. There was no predicting exactly how it would go, but everything was carefully planned with the hope that good things would come.  

I found myself amused by the scene across the street from my home. I’d seen it so many times before, not only in my personal life, but also in a past job when I was an event planner. I’d seen many physical set ups like this one and, perhaps more often, I’d experienced setups and waiting for nontangible events to unfold. The metaphor for my current state of being was obvious. My wedding will be in less than a month (the planning is done). I apply to residency programs the rest of the year (it’s a long process, please don’t ask). My soon-to-be husband is about to move to Connecticut and start his first job as a nurse. Those are the major events soon to unfold; of course, there are zillions of little events where the music is just about to start too.

Life is full of wind ups, waits, activity, clean up, and recovery on repeat. Some versions of these relentless series take more effort and planning than others. Some have more ways they could go wrong. Some events are set up and then no one shows up. Some events last longer than expected. Some events turn out better than you imagined. That’s life. Having gone through these actions over and over again, I believe waiting is the worst. Clean up is also hard, but waiting is the hardest. While my neighbors wait for the food they prepared to disappear into hungry mouths and the games they set up to spark laughter; I find myself waiting for other things that took many more moments (years actually) than cones, tables, and food to set up.

Home

And the last of three orchids I’d nurtured was sending up new flower shoots. It was the second of two my fiancé had given me when I finished my first medical board exam (about a year ago now). Ironically, I was sliding into studying for my second board exam as these orchids sent vigorous spikes forth with flowers that erupted like fireworks. It seemed my exam schedule was on orchid time.

The orchids weren’t the only plants I’d lugged from one state and town to the next. But, in that moment, their colors overshadowed the perfect leaves of the plants around them. Their colors were competing with the new rug I’d bought when I moved into my fourth (and hopefully last) home of medical school only a week or so ago.

I called it the sunny-side-up rug as it was bright yellow and white like a perfectly cooked egg. Somehow the plants looked greener next to the yellow. The yellow beside the purple African violets and remaining orange blossoms of the Christmas cactus and the orange-salmon ever-blooming crown of thorns was representative of the contrasts in my life. And the complementary colors of the yellow rug and purple flowers reminded me of my roots and my newest stethoscope which I’d decorated with colored zip ties representing the rainbow but paired by complementary color. The stethoscope decoration was an attempt to ward off stethoscope theft and, more importantly, a personal reminder of the same roots for which the contrasting colors in my apartment were a metaphor.

My roots are in the arts and carpentry and the outdoors which is a mix of dirt, water features, plants, trees, and rocks. And my new home reflected my foundation in these things. My time in the clinic and hospital often reminded me from where I’d come. Not so much because anyone I worked with or spoke to in these settings knew my history but because their ignorance of my history was so glaring and central to my relationship with them. It is easy to get lost in the world that is healthcare especially when that world is not even in the universe where you grew up. 

They say home is where the heart is. And when you’re a doctor in training you know that the heart is in the chest. Which complicates things when trying to find your home because your chest is wherever you happen to be. While I don’t think wherever I am is home, my idea of home is not so far off from knowing the heart is in the chest. I’ve had many homes. My tendency toward multiple homes may be a complication of split custody and two homes as a child – though, more likely, the shiftiness of where I call home stems from my personality-defining feature of being a wandering soul. Not wandering in the sense of a gypsy who is constantly moving, but in the sense that one place has never been the only place I called home. My life leading to medical school and through medical school has reflected that. Depending on what you count as moving, I’ve moved over 10 times in the past 10 years spanning two countries, three US states, and several towns in most of those regions and called each location to which I moved home.

When you’ve moved as much as I have, you develop a keen sense for what kinds of places can be called home. And you also learn that some places are easier to call home than others. My new apartment that contains the re-blossoming orchids and the sunny-side-up rug is one of those places that was instantly home. As soon as I opened the front door for the first time, I knew I was home. Home for now and home until I leave. The homy feeling might have something to do with the expansive windows. As a green thumb, the bigger question is not how or why I grow plants but rather if I seek places where my plants will thrive or if seek places where I will thrive. It’s easy growing plants when you need the same thing as they do. Sun. We need lots of sun and sunny days or else we get irritable and fade.

The new apartment was also home because I’d picked it from multiple options. I’d lived in the area for a while and surveyed the land. I’d used the knowledge gathered from my surveying to decide that this new town was the town in which I wanted to live. At least for now. The new apartment was also home because it was the first lease my soon-to-be-husband and I had signed together. It was a new place for us to both start new phases. He, his nursing career. I, my last year of medical school.

Seeing the flowers, the yellow rug, and the ñanduti (colorful Paraguayan lace) I’d placed on every empty surface in the apartment and thinking about the art that could fit on the broad walls made me feel happy in my new place. As I sat drinking my mate in the morning sun, I felt peaceful. As I looked out the windows; thought about how close I was to finishing the third year of medical school, a hard year to say it shortly; and considered all the wonderful things that would unfold in the coming months I felt at home. My literal heart was in my chest and my memories of past homes were in my metaphorical heart and both hearts were here in this apartment. Here, life followed the rhythm of the orchid flower cycle. Here was home because of the colors and sun and feelings that filled the place.

PS: it turns out I’ve written a post titled “Home” before…back in October 2014 when I lived in Paraguay. If you’re curious how my thoughts then compare to now check it out.

Together

Repost of a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original here.

“Here, you can just about always find an internal medicine resident who speaks the patient’s language,” the resident I was working with said, smiling, “It’s amazing.” Another resident had just stopped by to say that one of their colleagues did, in fact, speak that obscure Southern Asian language the translation service did not cover that they needed for an acute patient. I smiled because it was amazing. This was exactly the type of place I’d wanted to train to become a physician.

It was standard that everyone on my teams during my internal medicine rotation had a different accent. And when two of us did have the same accent, our divergent places of origin and cultural backgrounds made up for the lack of difference in how our English sounded. What I liked most, was that in this hospital everyone came from different places – the patients, the nurses, the residents, the physicians, and the other hospital staff. Even in modern America, it’s somewhat uncommon to work in a hospital where the physician diversity almost reflects the diversity of the patients. The hospital where I did my internal medicine rotation in Connecticut was very close to having its physicians reflect the different groups of people who made up the greater community of the hospital.

One thing I found interesting upon returning to Vermont after almost a decade away was how much I missed the accents and the challenge of finding connection across cultural differences I’d experienced during my years in the Washington, DC and Paraguay. There was a subtle feeling of stagnation, almost boredom that crept into my professional life as I began my medical career in my home state. Of course, Vermont has pockets of diversity of all kinds but it’s not like living in an urban area or a foreign country.

After my second year of medical school, I moved to LCOM’s Connecticut campus. As I settled into my new community, I learned that where I lived in Connecticut was a melting pot that buzzed and hummed in ways that more homogenous communities do not.

What better time to dive into a diverse medical community than right after the release of the COVID vaccines? As I listened to the accents of the residents and attending physicians with whom I worked during my Connecticut internal medicine rotation, I was struck by how the medical community is just as connected as the general human community is connected. Afterall, COVID has definitively illustrated how communicable diseases can spread easily around the world. But, also, the speedy development and dissemination of the COVID vaccine showed how we humans can solve dire problems when the minds of people all around the world come together.

There was something unique about how my internal medicine teams came together to solve patient problems. Of course, good medicine transcends culture – some medications and interventions just work. But, in terms of decisions about how to interact with patients and their families, each of us brought our own cultural beliefs and backgrounds to our practice of medicine.

One of the neatest things about working with team members who aren’t like you, is that you’re forced to reflect on your own ways. You’re forced to examine other ways of being. And, in medical school where it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of disease states and medication dosages – I was grateful to be reminded of the humanness of the residents and attending physicians around me. And, also, to be reminded that my patients brought their humanity with them when they came to the hospital.

Most of the hours spent on internal medicine were dedicated to identifying the best course of treatment for our patients. But as rounds ended for the day, there was often the lucky opportunity to hear what medical school was like in other countries and how physicians from all round the world had come to find themselves in Connecticut. The walls of the hospital seemed less limiting when I realized that it had taken a global community to staff the hospital itself.

Ring Reflection

I held my wedding ring in my palm, feeling the weight of it. I put it on and took it off – making sure it didn’t get stuck and testing the feel of it. It was still months until I’d be able to wear it but, I liked having the opportunity to test it out. It had our favorite mountain range on it; an unassuming range that most overlook. Yet, we’d had many true adventures on that range. By happenchance his favorite mountain was on one end of the range and mine was on the opposite, with a slog of a ridge between them.

Someone asked us recently if we were serious hikers and we laughed. Serious? We’re day hikers who find trails whenever time and the fatigue of busy lives allows. Serious? We like showers, feasts, and fireplaces after miles climbed. Serious? We always seem to be bellowing Star Wars and Mighty Python quotes (between giggles) when those scarce other hikers unexpectedly find us on the trail.

My ring felt light and heavy at the same time. A simple band with so many stories behind it. I didn’t want or have an engagement ring, so the wedding ring was the first tangible reality that we were “getting hitched.” Engagement rings are not for me; though I realize for many they are a joyous aspect of their engagement. A thing I’ve enjoyed about not having an engagement ring is my interactions with people who don’t know me – what does it take for me to tell them I’m engaged? As a medical student I interact with numerous people every day, yet only some of them inspire me to share any part of my story with them. It’s an exercise in exploring exactly how humans create trust and connection during encounters the length of medical office visits. You might be amazed by the number of physicians with whom I worked for weeks yet did not tell I was engaged. Not for fear, but simply for lack of connection or reason to share that tidbit of myself.

I looked at the range as it unfolded as I turned my ring carefully. Ranges represent a journey. My fiancé and I had been on many journeys but, overall, we were on life’s journey together. Our path had thus far been calm yet still varied by ups and downs and mud patches. School had been the overarching limitation, much like a heavy pack, of our life as a couple. I’d been in school our entire relationship, and he’d been in school for most of it. We were friends for years before we started dating. In those years, we weren’t in school and had had a more leisurely approach to hiking and feasting, without the pressure of tests and hard study schedules.

We had in common a love of healthcare, yet our approaches were quite different. To be honest our brains perfectly illustrate the difference between the nursing and physician approach to patients and health. He was the matter of fact, nurturing, and patient human you’d want at your bedside hours upon hours when you’re sick. I was the curious one, driven by a desire to understand and then solve problems. I was not the one you’d want to answer your call bell as you tried to live your life in a hospital. However, I was the one you wanted examining your labs and exploring your history to discover how we might wrestle your health to a stable place. Healthcare is a culture and a lifestyle. It is terrible and amazing at the same time. These days it is more of a tragedy than a comedy, yet there remains in those of us soon to enter the field as newly trained members of the team a sense of hope. Hope that we can help. That, somehow, despite the broken system and so many brands of red tape in our way, we can improve (and maybe even save) lives. Hope is powerful.

I put on my ring, again. I looked at it. It seemed to fit. It felt weird. I was excited. I was hopeful. I looked forward to discovering how the days would unfold after I started wearing it. Like all adventures there was fear in my heart as I stood on the threshold preparing to take the first step. But, also like all adventures, I knew that the first step had to be taken. While never a nomad I’ve always been a wanderer, which inherently means I have stepped from many thresholds. Every first step was filled with anticipation and worry about what would unfold. And, yet, I have never regretted where the road took me. I often reflect on the harsh and beautiful meanders I’ve undertaken. I’ve never wished for a different journey.

I guess there’s something significant about the fact that rings are circles which have no end. A symbol of eternity. I’m a staunch believer that nothing lasts forever. I also believe that the basis of life is change. These beliefs make me curious about what it’ll look like to take some wedding vows and say that this jubilant soul I’ve decided to marry is my forever adventure partner.

My ring felt heavy, but not too heavy. I looked at the mountains depicted there. I wondered what mountains we’d climb in the years to come. What valleys we’d rest in. What ranges we’d prance along taking unruly numbers of selfies because we could. Serious hikers? Perhaps not. We’re just two people who share a deep love of the wild places and exploring them together.

Grateful

I found myself lying on the floor. The sun had set but it was still early – a tragedy of New England once the summer fades. I was not tired or sad. My to-do list was as robust as ever and my goals circled high above my head, seemingly in the clouds. Yet, I was lying on the floor not even stretching. No music, podcast, book, or movie playing. To be fair, I spent a fair amount of time sitting on the floor (my preferred studying location is at my floor desk) so lying on the floor wasn’t that much of a change. It was the stillness and purposelessness of the activity that was unusual for me.

There was a period of my existence when I could not be still and had to always be actively engaged in something. However, the need for constant stimulation dissipated when I was in Paraguay and, I’ve often thought, “good riddance.” I recall my early 20s. I worked fulltime, studied in college fulltime, trained for marathons, went to parties, and built my first career. It was exhausting. It was the way of life I knew. The way of becoming successful. Of fulfilling the American dream. Then I moved to Paraguay where everything seemed so slow. Hours sitting and drinking terere in the shade. Hours spent sitting and sometimes chatting, often staring into space silently, sometimes cooking or napping. I came to enjoy rainy days where it is common for rural Paraguay to shut down. Rainy days were filled with lounging and drinking mate. I precisely remember the moment I realized that when the Paraguayans told me they were doing “nothing,” they meant it. What an odd thing nothing is.

I’ve reached that point in medical school where I’d rather it was over. That point when the hours of studying, sitting in the hospital, trying to learn everything I can, and testing to see if I know enough to care for my patients are quite tedious. I do NOT say this out of despair; I still know medicine is exactly what I want to do professionally. I still love patients and the puzzles they present, but I’m ready to be good at something again. I recall a similar feeling junior year of high school, junior year of college, 6 months into my first professional job after college, and 6 months into my life in Paraguay. There’s a time in all learning curves where it’s truly a terrible slog. That time when you’ve learned an unfathomable amount, still feel mediocre at managing what you know, realize you still have a ton left to understand, and know that it will still be a while before you’re “good at it.” Whatever the mysterious “it” is.

And that’s where the gratefulness comes in. I’m grateful these days because I’ve played this game before. I’m grateful because I know myself better than I did last time I played the game of learning something completely new. I’m grateful because I know already that I’m attracted to activities that seem impossible yet, at some point (after many days of struggle), I do wind up being excellent at them.

So, I found myself lying on the floor. It was junior year of medical school. It was the breaking point. It was about to be a landslide into graduation. In a couple of blinks, I’d start residency. I was closer to becoming a physician than I’d ever been. I lay on the floor contemplating the joy and misery of learning. I thought about some patients who had changed my worldview ever-so-slightly. I thought about the amazing teachings and mentors who I’d encountered while wandering about the hospital wards. I thought about the first day I showed up to work on an ambulance (my first clinical experience), years ago now. “I won’t let you kill anyone,” my chief had said then. I contemplated this. Soon, it would be I who had to prevent patients from dying if it could be done. That was kind of a big deal. I felt humbled. I had much to learn despite having learned so much. I was grateful for this moment of pause while lying on the floor. Life is quite a whirlwind when you seek out challenge. The secret, therefore, is to be grateful for the moments of calm when they come. Even the worst storms have eyes; I remind myself of to look for them.

Engaged

This year I got engaged. It wasn’t a surprise as it came about after countless dialogues while driving between mountains and feasting spots, while plodding along trails below tree line, while standing next to rivers, and while gazing out at the horizon from mountain tops. Like most aspects of my fiancé and my relationship, the timing of engagement was mutually agreed upon and, once decided, a joint undertaking of finding rings, figuring out the legality of things, and planning a wedding unfolded.

It’s funny to me that I’m planning my wedding as I also undertake my third year of medical school. I am a person of action, but usually my time is spent on professional endeavors. I’ve only chosen careers that are consuming, where even when the day is done the puzzles of work linger, tossing and turning in my mind as I go about the rest of my life. I’ve never considered relationships beyond friendship as required or even goals. I’ve always seen marriage as something I’d consider only if someone fell into my life who made me think of it. “Fell” being the key word. I’ve known for many years that happiness and loneliness come from within. The loneliest years of my life I was in a long-term relationship. My happiest times correlate only with my internal state. I fought hard on many occasions when I was single to be allowed to go about my business as I saw fit. And as I think about marriage, the annoyance of having to explain that I am whole without a partner remains somewhere in my skin. But, yet, as I undertake one of the hardest years of becoming a doctor, I am also signing away singleness.

My fiancé and I have discussed marriage and dreamed about growing old together since months after we started dating. There are people who bring out your happiness, who make you laugh more than most, and who force you to think about the world differently. My fiancé is that person for me. And in our short time together, we’ve weathered many storms. There was the first years of medical school – torturous as the hours of study dragged to the future. There was COVID. There were those times when we could have died in the mountains. Where we literally talked each down the cliffs, teetering on an all-to-real edge. There is this current stretch of doing the “long distance relationship thing.” There were the times we shared with family and friends, where it was so easy to feel connected. How seamlessly he fit in with my people (including when my sister and her partner lived with us for a month starting days after he and I moved in together) and how his people made me feel like family from the beginning (starting with the Thanksgiving dinner where I met his parents and everyone in the extended family all at once).

I knew it was time for us to finally start planning our wedding for two reasons. First, since our first marriage conversation we’ve wanted to get married before he follows me to residency and the clock is ticking until that time comes. Second, the realization popped into my head that I couldn’t imagine being happier with another person.

Engagement is neat in the sense that it brings people together. Our families and friends have offered advice and help as my fiancé and I embark on wedding planning. It’s such a fun thing to have a joyous project to work on. Engagement is as odd as it is neat. There are many norms about engagement and marriage which have stood out to me because I rejected them. I didn’t want an engagement ring. My wedding dress will be red. I prefer small, intimate gatherings. My ceremony must be outside. There will be no registry. There will be no escorting down an aisle.

And as I often do for my career, I’ve spent some time reflecting on marriage. I like to ponder why things are important and worth doing. My younger self often thought marriage was giving up something of yourself for someone else. I’m glad to report that that isn’t the case. Marriage is about two very different people taking on a shared adventure, where there are lots of side adventures together and apart. Marriage is just a formal way of saying “I trust you and want you to be my life-long co-hiker no matter how boggy the trail or how craggy the mountainside.”

And as he said when I read him this post, “’Fiancé’ is a weird word, let’s get married already.”

Medicine of the Mind

“It’s a privilege to learn their stories…really get to know people,” he said when I asked for his nugget of advice for us students as we continue our medical school journey. “In what time you think you have, try to know them [patients]…exercise your privilege.” Before we get into the weeds, let me clarify what he meant as this quote is just a piece of a longer conversation. By “privilege” he meant the honor of getting to meet patients and having the opportunity to hear their stories. By “exercise” he meant take the time to be a good doctor which includes getting to know people’s stories.

This piece of advice came from a retired psychiatrist who, as rumor has it, retired several times and each time his patients convinced him to come back to practice. The way he carried himself reminded me of my late grandfather – tall but not imposing, with straight white hair that covered just enough of his forehead, and a quiet voice. But more than how he carried himself, his curiosity caught my attention. He was an old human, an old physician at that, who the week before he gave the above advice had comfortably engaged in conversation about pronouns and transgender care. He was a physician who listened to learn when I offered a rudimentary definition of “nonbinary.” I’ve met many a young person, with far fewer years to settle into old ways, who showed less interest in uncovering the nuances of the human experience.

“Really get to know people.” His words made me hopeful because they showed that even at the end of a long career there are physicians who still have a passion for the human story as much as I do at the beginning of the Doctorhood Quest. Being only 5 weeks into working in the hospital as a medical student, I have a long way to go before I can offer advice to students. But, for now, challenge accepted good sir. Let’s see how I do in the coming weeks and years at uncovering stories while also learning labs, diseases, medications, and all the other factoids that will help me reduce symptoms and cure disease in the patients I see.

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. 

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.