Tag Archives: human existence

Intention: Humanity

I’ve heard that at the beginning of a yoga session, people may set an intention to guide that period of time and help it translate into life as a whole.  While I haven’t formally done yoga before, I really like the idea of setting intentions.

In past years, I’ve picked a word or phrase to help guide the year in lieu of writing out a list of January resolutions (which I never seem to look at again anyways).  This year, I set an intention to be curious about life and each new experience it brings.  I was in the tentative first few weeks of a new relationship as 2016 rolled in, and my goal of embracing curiosity helped me to keep my heart open to the day-by-day unfolding of what has now become a beautiful part of my life.


I’m finding that sometimes life can knock the wind out of you, and other times it can give you wings to fly.  The relationship that started with curiosity has been an incredibly wonderful instance of the latter.

Time has been moving quickly, and now I’m exactly 30 days away from starting my first clinical rotation.  The idea of setting an intention is coming up again, this time because I’ve spent a portion of the past two days thinking about what it means to be a compassionate medical caregiver.  I’ve also been spending a good deal of time pondering how on earth I’m going to manage being a clinical student.  I’m 26 now, and I can see that I’ve grown a lot (especially in the past year), but I’m still trying to figure out who I am.  So perhaps part of this is a cry from my soul to reaffirm who I am, to reconnect with the reasons I am in medicine.


I’ve decided I want to set an official intention for my clinical years.  I already have one (hopefully) realistic goal for clinics: walk into my rotation on Day 1 with my head up, get along well with my team, learn from the mistakes I make, connect with the patients I’m assigned to follow, and walk out the door at the end of the day with my head still up.

As the lyrics go, chin up buttercup.

I also want to have a broader intention for my full 16 months of clerkships.  I think I’m starting to sort that out as I try to chart the courses of the rivers draining into the cognitive and emotional depths of who I am.  What are the reasons at the core of why I want to be a physician?  Why am I doing this?  What is going to get me out of bed every day for the next several decades?

It reminds me of when I was in the throes of applying to medical school several years ago, asking the same question–why medicine?–as I agonized over my AMCAS application form and the ensuing secondary essay questions. I actually went back to some of those essays today, blowing dust from the computer files.  It was like opening a time capsule and reliving the tense anticipation of applying to medical school: waiting for a secondary application invitation…waiting for an interview…waiting on pins-and-needles for an acceptance.


Are my reasons still the same as they were when I was a 22-year old student fresh out of undergrad?  I believe they are, at their core, although they’ve evolved and grown with the passage of time.

Sitting down with my journal, I parsed out four reasons why I am in medicine:

  1. When I’m able to bring a moment of compassionate connection into a hospital room or patient interaction, I feel like my soul has been nourished (and hope the feeling is mutual with the person I’ve connected with).
  2. I enjoy being able to share information; it’s gratifying and gives me the sense that I’m contributing something to other’s lives.
  3. Medicine is full of stories if I stop to pay attention and listen to them.  I want to learn people’s stories and give them the space to share them, if they want to.  This ties in to reason #1.
  4. Learning engages my mind and makes me feel incredibly happy and alive.  The medical field is one of lifelong learning.  This leads to reason #2.

Ultimately, I found that everything can be reduced to the following: (1) I find compassionate connection with other humans to be deeply satisfying and meaningful and (2) I enjoy the personal growth and sense of contribution to society that comes from learning new information, thinking critically, and teaching others.

So these are the bare-bones reasons of why I am in medicine.  Medicine is an environment where compassion and information-sharing can be practiced on a daily basis, and it positions me at a time point in peoples’ lives where this is especially needed.  I personally found, when undergoing a minor (but painful) medical procedure recently, the only two things I cared about were whether I trusted my provider (i.e. whether I felt he cared about and respected me as a person) and whether he was competent (i.e. could do everything efficiency and effectively).  I know everyone has unique priorities when interacting with the medical team, but I feel that trust and competency would likely show up as common themes.  And those are words I’d like to be able to be applied to me.

I actually feel a bit vulnerable sharing all this on my blog, because it gets down to why I’m doing what I’m doing.  And of course, there’s always the question, is it enough?  Are my reasons good enough?  And am I?  I have to believe that I am, and that I can do this.  I may not become the absolute best at what I do, but I will try my absolute best.

So my intention for the next year and a half?  To be compassionate, to pay attention to people’s stories, to accept that I’ll make mistakes, and to do what I can to learn from them.

In a word?



All right, right now


I love the idea of time and space being a fabric with folds and multiple dimensions.  It intrigues me like a song sung in a language I cannot understand: mysterious and perplexing, even, but also deeply beautiful.  If time and space are woven together, I wonder, what if I were able to loop back in time like a backstitch formed by needle and thread?

What if I were actually a time traveller?

My mom told me about a thought experiment she tried recently, where she imagined that she was a few decades older and had been granted a wish to go back in time to the present day.  What would it be like, she wondered, to live this moment–this afternoon in January 2016–with the perspective of her older self?  The poignancy of her description struck a chord deep inside me, and it came to mind again today while I was driving through Palo Alto beneath a brooding sky.

I realize that I spent a lot of time last year wishing for the future.  It’s because my vision of my future self often feels more comfortable than the skin I’m currently in…the future me is confident and experienced, someone who has navigated her clinical rotations, finished residency interviews, graduated from medical school, and survived her intern year.  She is taller (which is completely unrealistic, since the growth plates in my bones fused long ago), wiser, and stronger.  At least, that is what I hope.

While it is important to have goals and a vision for the future, I’m beginning to understand at a deeper level that they should not obliterate my ability to experience and enjoy the present moment.  It does me little good to dream if doing so makes me sleep away the life I have right now.  I want to wake up.  Even if my present life feels overwhelming and intimidating at times, I want to stay open to however it unfolds.  This is something I’ve been focusing on more recently, and I’m gradually seeing that many of the things I’m afraid of are shadows cast by my own mind.

The mind is powerful, capable of either intimidating or inspiring me with a simple flip of perspective.  So as I was driving today, I wondered what would happen if I were actually 70 years old and no longer able to practice medicine because my body couldn’t keep up with my soul any longer.  Perhaps I’d have silver hair cropped close to my head and tendrils of blue veins winding beneath rice-paper skin.  Maybe I’d be sitting in a chair by a window with dust motes catching the light.  Or maybe I’d not even have lived that long.  But if I did live to that age and were granted a wish to return to this week in January, what would I think?  What would I do?

I don’t think I’d be wishing for the days to pass quickly.  I don’t think I’d be as afraid of failing, either, because I’d know that my mistakes had helped me learn and grow into the person I had become.  I would probably be wildly, vividly grateful to be here, in this very moment, a Stanford med student and a daughter and sister and friend.  To be nearly 26 years old and very much alive.

It’s hard to keep this perspective; honestly, it’s easier for me to worry and wish for an imaginary future where things are easier.  But I know that sort of a future is simply a mirage, and that life is always going to be challenging.  It is for everyone.  And I’m starting to be much more okay with that.  I am part of humanity in all its joy and agony, and I may not love everything about that but I do love being human.

This year, I’m going to try to stop more frequently and realize that I am all right, right here, right now. 🙂



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…


Holes in the Universe

This morning, I was thinking about what my purpose in life is.  Even as a medical student, it’s possible to have some days where you wake up and wonder what the point of your existence is.  Those kinds of days do happen, although they don’t always make sense.  We don’t often talk about them.  Perhaps part of it is that we shy away from the seemingly illogical nature of such feelings; after all, we are med students in training to save lives.  Our destiny is to help heal, comfort, and make a difference in the world–if that isn’t enough to give one a sense of purpose, what is?

I was brushing my teeth as I thought this over.

Rather than try to logic my way through to a resolution, I began to think about how I’d feel without the people who are most important to me–how empty my soul would be without them in my life.  Each person who means something to me would leave a void in their absence, which means that they are actively filling that void by their mere existence.

That’s when I realized, at some deep level, our purpose is to stop up the holes in the universe.  We aren’t always conscious of these holes in the fabric of human existence, but we know they’re there when we’re missing someone.  We feel them in the middle of the night when we remember a lost love or in the airport when we say goodbye.  We glimpse them as we drive past crosses standing sentinel beside a freeway, or in hospital waiting rooms, or in poetry drawn from the depths of the soul.

So I just wanted to share this.  If you ever wonder what your purpose is, remember that you help to hold the universe together.  You are the only one who can close the gap.  Each of us has a hole to fill, and each of our lives have been uniquely cut and shaped by our experiences to fill the void in another’s soul.

Just think of something that is meaningful to you and imagine how you’d feel without it.  Maybe it’s hard to imagine a person–perhaps it is a pet or a beautiful wild place where the pines grow tall or something that makes you smile even on days when your smile feels worn out.  Perhaps it’s a favorite song.  Whatever it is, try imagining the void without it.  Then feel for a moment how its presence fills that void.

Whether you realize it or not, your presence also fills an empty place.  This doesn’t have to do with your job or what you do for others or how beautiful or strong you are.  It doesn’t have anything to do with your intelligence, grades, title, or degree.  It has to do with who you are–your favorite color and the way your hand feels when someone holds it and the way your eyes shine when you watch the sunset.

Your life fills a hole in the universe, and it keeps the void from spilling through.