Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Holiday Toast to Not Being Miserable

When interviewing for medical school, a student interview is often part of the hoop-jumping process.  In these interviews, they always ask you if you have any questions.  I think you’re supposed ask about stuff like research, curriculum, and the latest scholarly article on treatment of disseminated intravascular coagulation.  It shows that you’re genuinely interested in medicine.  During my interviews, I always asked students if they were happy.  Along with medicine, being happy is one of my genuine interests.
Asking students about their happiness earned me a good number of calculated smirks.  Most students would slip on this knowing grin before assuring me they were not miserable, which was comforting, of course.  There was, however, one student tour guide who glared at me and flatly asserted, “We’re in medical school.”  I remember some of the applicants around me chuckling and even nodding.  But he was being serious and I don’t like to laugh at other people’s misery.
What transpires over the course of years, or perhaps decades, that turns wide-eyed applicants into weary-eyed professionals?  None of us enter medicine with aspirations of becoming jaded or cynical.  I wonder if some of us just end up sacrificing too many of our meaningful daily experiences under the piercing focus of our long-term ambitions.  True, we all sacrifice for the things we love.  Medicine is no different in this regard.  But then again, as students we tend to lay especially grand offerings of time and energy at medicine’s alter—trusting that our intellect, emotion, and efforts are being poured into a worthy pursuit (and trusting that this pursuit is nothing like a subprime mortgage).  What is sacrificed now will be reimbursed with interest later.  At least, that is our hope.  Yet in our fury to get things done, joy often becomes ancillary and delayed gratitude becomes a habit.  Maybe even a way of life.  If foregoing happiness becomes our nature, how soon until it is forgotten altogether?
I knew before entering medicine that there would likely be holidays spent at the bedside of unhappy patients.  There will be attendings and residents who will chew me up and spit me out for the least of my screw-ups.  And on occasion, my textbooks might not leave as much room on my bookshelf for poetry or comedy as I’d like.  Yet, in spite of all this, people before me have survived to smile and tell jokes and some to even still laugh at them.  It makes me think that perhaps joy isn’t so much the result of choosing the right school, or even the right specialty.  Maybe it’s more of a skill, like inserting an IV or stitching together a nasty wound.  Sometimes you watch a skilled physician perform a procedure with such ease that you forget the practice and effort behind it.  Maybe the same thing can be said about joy.
I have this theory that babies are born with this unbridled capacity for joy and excitement, but perhaps as we get older, cynicism starts to creep in as our ability to express joy with child-like abandon simply atrophies with disuse.  Really, I’d rather not find out for sure whether the latter part of this theory holds any truth.  So I force myself to keenly cherish that last sip of coffee before I run out the door, late for class in the morning.  And I savor that bit of giddy energy that dances in my stomach when a grumpy patient warms up to me after a few minutes of conversation.  I drink in the little moments of elation and hold them on my tongue until they turn into euphoria.  In the back of my mind, I know I must for fear of ever becoming that student when asked if I’m happy, can only respond “I’m in medical school.”


  1. like my dad says, "every day is a great day, though some are better than others"

  2. Hey Jay it's Andrew. I just saw this, and it's the night before my last exam before break, so this really resonates a lot with me. Thanks for the post and keep up the good writing!

  3. Hey Drew,
    Just saw your comment. Hope exams went well and Merry Christmas!

  4. "I drink in the little moments of elation and hold them on my tongue until they turn into euphoria."

    i feel so encouraged :). thanks jay!


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