One Test to rule them all, One Test to define them; One Test to bring them all and into knowledge bind them.
Like Bilbo and Frodo did in their times, I am about to embark on an adventure beyond the borders of all I have known. (Did I actually just compare medical school to the Shire?) This morning (since this post has taken me past midnight to write), I’ll begin my two-month journey of studying for the USMLE Step 1–an eight-hour long exam which will test all the medical knowledge I’ve learned in the past two years of medical school. To speak with a bit of poetic license, it is the exam which will determine my destiny. It is the One Test to rule all tests, the score to end all scores, for the grade I receive on it will influence how desirable of an applicant I am when applying for residency in a few years.
Thankfully, my future is (in reality) influenced by more than just the score I receive on this test. Nevertheless, the Step 1 is a very important exam, and I’ll be devoting about 10 solid hours a day to studying for it. Factor in time for meals, exercise, and the ebb and flow of natural life, and I’ll be starting my days around 6 AM and ending around 9 PM. As intense as this will be, I’m excited about this block of time to study and really see how everything fits together. I hope that I will be like a hawk soaring high above the landscape, taking in a panoramic view of everything that is going on so I can hone in on details and dive for deeper understanding.
I like to think of funny things like that. It makes life more interesting to me. 🙂
Levity aside, it’s going to be an intense two months. For me, a bright spot is that I’ll be studying with a very close friend, and we’ll be sharing the journey together. As the old proverb says, “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved; a joy shared is a joy doubled.” I’m looking forward to teaming up with my friend to make deeper connections with the material as we grow into the doctors we dream of becoming.
That dream, however, is something I’ve been thinking about recently.
Very recently, for a few bleak weeks, I lost sight of who I wanted to be in medicine. After nearly two years of studying and training, I felt that my path had led me into a seeping bank of fog. I couldn’t see my way forward into the life-giving occupation I had imagined when I applied to medical school, and I began to feel increasingly lost.
For several agonizing days, I felt that I had lost my purpose. After pushing myself in my studies for months while simultaneously struggling with the fact that life goes on even when you don’t feel like you have the reserves to deal with it, I was beginning to burn out. It’s something that happens, and it’s a real thing. I don’t think I burned out all the way, but reflecting on the past months, I see that I was beginning to. I’m okay with admitting that because I know it happens to others too, and I hope that we can begin to dialogue about it more since doing so will help us, our colleagues and our future patients. It will validate our own human experience.
It’s okay to be worn out sometimes.
What helped me re-engage with my purpose was a recent encounter where I didn’t feel listened to. It was a situation when I wanted the comfort of being heard, and I instead felt more like an avatar for my electronic medical record. The interaction was relatively brief, but served as the wind to blow away the fog I had been muddling through. I realized at a visceral level that, as a medical professional, I want to help my patients feel heard. Even if they don’t always want to open up to me, I want each person to know they have had the opportunity to talk and be heard.
Yesterday, I watched a fantastic TED Talk by Dave Isay called “Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear.” Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, which started as a recording booth at the Grand Central Terminal in New York to allow anyone to record an interview with another person. In his talk, he discussed how empowering and validating it can be for people to tell their stories.
Of recording interviews as a radio broadcaster, he said “Over the next 15 years, I made many more radio documentaries, working to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Over and over again, I’d see how this simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people, particularly those who had been told that their stories didn’t matter. I could literally see people’s back straighten as they started to speak into the microphone.” (TED)
This was the other light that helped me begin reconnecting with my meaning in medicine. I want something more than the technical skills and knowledge can give me; I want to be a healer through stories. I want to be an artist who creates a space for people to speak themselves into existence. Going back to the creation account in Genesis, words are what brought substance out of the void. I think this is what can happen in our lives today when we pay attention to what people have to say–when we pay attention to their experience and their feelings and thoughts and what it means for them to be a human and a patient.
I’m finding my way again, one step at a time. So as I study the names of medications like ticlopidine and ticagrelor or diseases like loa loa and acute sclerosing glomerulonephritis, I’m also paving the way for stories to be told.
Since I love words and neologisms, here’s a word I’ve crafted to describe what I want to be:
Halewright (noun) From Old English hǣlu-whyrta, corresponding to hale (health) + wright (builder, creator) Someone who aids in bringing healing and wholeness to other humans through the act of listening to their stories.
And so the journey continues…