Thursday, April 14, 2011

Skipping a Beat, Year 2

As medical students, we take great pride in our intellect. Our chests and egos inflate a bit, knowing that we emerged from the pre-med slaughterhouse to don a white coat and be pronounced the “cream of the crop.”  We can memorize biochemical pathways and recite long lists of tongue-twisting drugs with the best of them.  And this is, in part, what we were selected for. Because on the second week of school, a thick packet of notes awaited each of us in our mailboxes—a week’s worth of learning condensed into about a hundred some odd pages of medical minutiae. Our task was straightforward: to read, retain, and regurgitate. And thus, the heavy lifting began. From our second week up to the very end of our second year, we danced this ritualistic choreography of picking up a weekly packet and stepping in time with its contents until we’d learned every move and flurry—the whole time hoping we weren’t skipping a beat somewhere along the way.
But while learning the basics of medical science is both challenging and rewarding, it can at times feel quite narrow. In all the memorization and analysis, whatever inclinations we have for the creative and the expressive are sometimes left to atrophy. As with many processes of degeneration, it happens slowly. I didn’t even notice at first. I just knew that the small handful of writing assignments I was given during my first year took me an inordinate amount of time to write, but that I enjoyed these exercises in a manner disproportionate to their academic worth. And then I bumped into my friend, Sylvie, at the beginning of our second year of medical school. As I recounted my summer of research and lab work, she shared her own adventure of travelling through China, making a video documentary of Chinese medicine and the art of healing. She told me how as a dancer, she was thrilled to be able to create something again.
I still remember Sylvie’s exact words in regards to the demands of medical school and what little room it leaves for creative pursuits. “You know, Jay— sometimes this place just has a way of taking it away from us.”
I think I just nodded in agreement and probably muttered something clumsy, which I have a tendency to do when something strikes me as poignant or poetic. But Sylvie was right. I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. I was never a dancer, or a painter, or a photographer. And I sure wasn’t someone who would think to spend a summer in China filming a documentary. Yet I longed for a creative outlet. So I chose to write. I recount all of this because in order to understand what I gained from making writing a part of my education, I must start with why I initiated this project in the first place.
With regards to the process of writing, I wish I could say that my thoughts always flowed beautifully from mind to keyboard and that my efforts to create were always fluid, natural, and effortless. Sometimes they were. But more often than not, I labored to find the words I wanted and I struggled to express the mess that fills my mind. I once read some commentary from Ray Bradbury about his experience writing Fahrenheit 451. In it, I think he talks about how after he created the characters, the story almost wrote itself. God, I wish my writing wrote itself. But then again, Ray Bradbury is Ray Bradbury. I’m a second year med student with a blog. And for me the writing process was not only slow at times, but somewhat maddening. There were pieces that I drafted, edited, edited some more, and then trashed in favor of starting over from scratch.  Some of these pieces went unpublished after I gave up.
There was one composition that I remember was particularly difficult—“A Holiday Toast to Not Being Miserable.” I remember the frustration of trying to capture what it meant to be happy in the midst of a packed schedule full of exams and commitments. Naturally, every time I returned to my draft, my thoughts and feelings on such a layered topic would change depending on my day’s mood. I ended up reworking the entire piece multiple times before I was happy with the final product. Embarrassingly, it took me a combined 10 hours to write five paragraphs. But remember what I said about being disproportionately happy over seemingly negligible accomplishments? That was me. I think it was the personal journey I saw reflected in five paragraphs that mattered most to me. I could have cared less if it took me 50 hours to write.
In writing, I find freedom—freedom to be open and honest about my shortcomings, and freedom to be honest about myself. It’s strange, but in the space I’ve created since beginning this project, I’ve also found a greater patience for others. I remember one incident in particular. It was after a fairly tough exam, and as with every exam, we returned to the computer lab to review our scores and whatever questions we may have missed. As I sat down to review my mistakes, a fellow student whom I have much respect for walked in looking flustered and sat down next to me. As this student proceeded to review his exam, he grew more and more agitated and started to complain aloud about the test. Heatedly, he commented about how terribly he’d done and how unfair the test was. At first, my heart went out to him as I knew how frustrating it could be when you work so hard yet fall short of your personal standards. But then as he got up to leave, he bent down as if in pain, looked around and muttered loud enough for those around him to hear, “I can’t believe I got a 96.” I was speechless. In fact, I was angry. Because it just felt so petty that a student could act this downtrodden and then flaunt a near-perfect score in the face of his classmates.
I thought about this experience for quite some time after it occurred. I allowed it to bother me until I finally concluded that the stress surrounding test week does strange things to even the best of us. While complaining about a 96 might seem cheap, I have always been quick to acknowledge how little the first two years of medical school have to offer in terms of things to hold and call our own. Perhaps for some students, test scores begin to feel like the sole fruit from two years of academic labor. And from this perspective, I feel like I can begin to understand how 4 points lost might somehow feel like a catastrophe. After all, there are certainly times when I feel as if I’ve lost a piece of myself somewhere in the binders of notes that lie piled up on my desk. Like Sylvie said, sometimes it just has a way of taking it away from you. I guess this is really what I was trying to avoid by providing myself with a creative outlet. I just wanted a space to work, and build, and grow outside of school. A space to point to and call my own.
Finally, I wanted to address all the support I’ve received throughout this past year. Although writing and maintaining my blog was very much a personal journey, it would have been much emptier were it not for the responses I received from those around me. By nature, my project was one in which most of the work was done independently. From its inception, was really designed as a personal space where I could sift through my thoughts freely and artfully. What I didn’t anticipate was how much inspiration would come from the conversations I had with friends, classmates, and family regarding my blog. It was fun hearing from old classmates I hadn’t talked to since college or even high school. Yet perhaps the greatest honor came from a couple close friends who spent the past year applying for medical school. They told me that my writing helped them laugh when it was hard to laugh, and provided an honest perspective in the midst of a tiresome application process. I know these friends, and I know they like to use hyperbole, but nonetheless this made me smile.
So regardless of whatever quiet expectations I had at the beginning, I’ve been fortunate to find friends and mentors along the way who’ve helped shape this project and who continue to make it meaningful. For those of you who aren’t aware, I was mentored by Dr. Jo Marie Reilly over the past year, and I cannot express to her my gratitude for her role as both an editor and a role model. You would be hard pressed to meet a doctor with a bigger heart and a warmer presence.
So after a year of toiling with HTML and java, and projecting my thoughts out into cyberspace, I’ve clearly enjoyed the experience. I garnered some recognition, built some new relationships, and rediscovered a creative voice. But what have I really gotten out of it? I think to summarize, I have to go back to what Sylvie said about creating space in medical school to explore those non-academic areas where joy, hope and growth reside. I hate to use the word “balance” as it has a tendency to become cliché in medicine. But the reality is that somewhere between undergrad and medical school, I’ve realized that I can no longer take balance for granted. As we dive deeper in our super-specialized professional pursuits, it can be tough making room for all those non-specialized but nonetheless special areas that make us happy and make us human. But it’s worth fighting for. Because we all have a tendency at times to stare at our feet as we forge on ahead to whatever destination lies in the distance. Yet if we refuse to lift our eyes to distraction or detour, we’ll wind up at the finish line with little more than asphalt and pavement as our experience. And what’s the fun in that? So for me, as I move forward, I’m glad to have established my scenic detour—a diversion I hope to revisit regularly as I continue along this road to becoming a doctor.


  1. I like happiness. I appreciate people who are able to find it in places I didn't think it could be found. So that is why I like you. I used to HATE those kids who complained about 96s in law school. But now I can relate, and therefore don't hate them as much anymore. Happiness regained!

    At times, this blog sounded a little bit like a breakup note. I thought you were going to tell us that this blog was wonderful and it helped get you to where you are today, but "balance" calls you to give it up and talk to books + patients instead. Thanks for not breaking up w your readership.

  2. Actually I've had a theory for a while now that the most important thing in the world is balance. Although things such as life, love, and happiness are incredibly important as well, I feel that balance is still an underlying aspect which makes all those things so great. There such a thing as "too much of a good thing", and obviously there is "too much of a bad thing" too. I won't get too much into it. Point being, balance is incredibly important and deceptively hard to accomplish. Just some food for thought.



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