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Medicine: A game of resilience and grit

There are plenty of days when I would ask myself if becoming a doctor is worth it.

There were good days and bad days. That day when I got accepted into medical school. That day when I was one of the highest in an exam. When my teacher would say, good reasoning, you got that diagnosis correct. Those days when I would teach my classmates the pathophysiology of a disease. And in clerkship, I recall days when I would make the correct diagnosis, my confidence soaring. I knew I was able to synthesize the knowledge that I have worked so hard to get throughout my years of medical school and clinics. There were days when my patients would thank me profusely for telling me more about their condition, and for taking care of them beyond the usual patient care.

Then there were bad days. I would feel overwhelmed with a multitude of things to do. The day I found out I failed my ENT finals. When I had so many exams and didn’t know where to start because there was another paper due. When my consultant said my work was subpar. In clinics, there were case discussions, endorsements, exams, pages from all of the clinic floors, several new admissions, demanding and condescending seniors, no bath, a few hours of sleep, and lack of food.

Always the food.

Nothing would crush the ego other than really bad exam scores coupled with your nth cup of coffee, a growling stomach, an empty wallet, dark eye bags, and a sneer from your consultant.

All this would be worth it someday. I will own my own practice, schedule patients to my discretion, and earn enough not to worry about my daily expenses. Maybe I would discover a drug or a cure for cancer, give speeches to various medical conferences, with more than enough patients than I could count. We all hope that we’d reach that point – the pinnacle of medical practice. We look up to those consultants who have established their practices well enough not to worry about the cash to bay for the tuition fees in their child’s college of choice or their next vacation abroad.

Not everyone gets there. For one reason or another.

There is that fear in the pit of my stomach.

Over the years, I’ve read so many articles about doctors quitting medical school, quitting residency, quitting their practice. I’ve heard of the attrition rates in medical schools all over the world, cutting their numbers to a mere fraction of what the class started with. I know people who get kicked out of medical school with poor chances of getting back in. I know doctors who took the boards, failed and gave up. I’ve met doctors who got into their residency of choice but backed out because of different life situations. I’ve met residents who quit in the middle of residency due to stress, chronic sleep deprivation, pregnancy, illness, money, and politics. I know of surgeons who quit surgery due to problems with their hands, unable to handle a scalpel again, then shifted to business.

I’ve considered quitting myself.

All this with the stark contrast of high performing colleagues who knew the answers to every question, with people who got into their medical school, residency and fellowship of choice because of connections, and the doctors who won awards left and right. When you look outside of the hospital, you look at your college classmates who became businessmen, stock market players, managers, politicians, IT developers, pilots, professional dancers, makeup artists with a full eight hours of sleep every night, and you start to wonder what you’re doing with your life.

When you look back to the very core of your profession, being a doctor involves a lot of paperwork, sleepless nights, dealing with difficult people. Other professions do that too. But there’s a uniqueness to the medical profession.

You’re saving lives. That’s what you’re doing.

No other profession gives you the chance to find out what is wrong with a person’s body, to confirm it, and to improve its outcome. Few other professions give you the chance to comfort one person’s pain upon finding out that they have cancer, but they have to stay strong. And if you’re not planning on a clinical path, no other profession allows you to teach younger students to change lives, to create public health research and programs, to make new medical technology, and help patients who use them. See article: 15 awesome careers you can do with your medical degree.

How amazing is that? And whether one medical student or doctor is slower or faster than you at getting to the pinnacle of medical practice does not matter. Stop comparing and take your life at your own pace.

When you fall, get up again. If you fail that exam, take it again with a vengeance. If you didn’t find out what was wrong with the patient the first time, go back to the books and correct what you can correct. If you were not able to have a good relationship with your colleagues, your juniors or your seniors, be sincere, and repair it if you could. Or you could simply carry on doing your job the best way you can. If you didn’t get the medical school, internship, residency or fellowship you wanted, just keep applying.

Life isn’t a straight path from point A to point B. And that’s okay, for as long as you have a goal in mind, and the resilience and grit to see it through. Resilience, “the capacity to respond to stress in a healthy way such that goals are achieved at minimal psychological and physical cost”.

No one else is going to make sure you get there other than yourself. 

We have come far, all of us. Not many people in the world are given the opportunity to touch lives every single day. Whatever your reasons for getting into medicine, I hope you find your reason to stay. And if that reason is no longer enough, I wish you the best, and I hope that you find fulfillment in whatever it is you choose.

So I ask you, what are your reasons for staying in medicine?

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