Self Improvement in Medical School

For me, the transition into medical school was rough.

 Having graduated in December, I spent my semester off before medical school as a physiology teaching assistant for a Texas A&M study abroad program in Bonn, Germany.

Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds, and the experience was, in and of itself, worthy of its own blog.

After coming home, I went back to my long-standing high school and college job as a Starbucks barista in Austin, TX. The experience in Germany had been exciting, sometimes uncomfortable, and full of personal growth. After coming home, I spent the next 3 months before medical school back in Austin, relaxing daily, and working at the same store where I had been since I was 16. My life in those months was fun, comfortable, and easy. I traded weekends traveling to new cities in Europe for weekends spending time with family and stand up paddle boarding on Lake Austin. Seriously, I spent every day that summer by the pool and on the lake. Life was chill. At the same time, I began to grow restless for the next step in my journey to begin.

If life was a pendulum, that pendulum could not have swung any harder and faster from chill to the opposite end of the spectrum.

 I soon found myself plunged head deep into my first medical school class: Gross Anatomy and Radiology. In the class, we dissected the entire human body in 8 weeks. I was being asked to remember much more information than in an undergraduate class in much less time. Terrified, I began studying like I had never studied before. Yet, it never felt like enough. At the beginning of medical school, I felt responsible for every fact, every anatomical structure and relationship.

 We are all human and knowing everything about everything is not possible. Inevitably, the stress began to mount. Feelings of inadequacy crept up.

 Don’t get me wrong, UTMB is awesome. The transition into graduate school is hard for every medical student. We are all tasked with saying goodbye to our families and saying hello to new friends who, at first, feel like strangers. I was fortunate to make close friends early who were hard working and at the same time, loved and supported me.

 I decided to join the Physician Healer Track at the beginning of my first year and early on, we discussed the importance of self-compassion in medical school. Although it was uncomfortable at first, daily positive self-talk became a part of my coping strategy. Through this practice, I began feeling more content with the day’s knowledge haul. It became easier to acknowledge my limitations. Surprisingly, the reprieve from self-disillusion made it possible for me to begin to see what personal strengths I bring to the bedside: compassion, discernment, and non-judgment.

 So I made it through my first year of medical school. It was hard, but I did it. As I reflected on my first year, I was proud of what I had accomplished. At the same time, I was feeling a little burnt out. I began to realize that the demands of medical school had taken priority over my self-care. I was eating a lot of fast food, and I wasn’t exercising. Throughout the course of my first year, I had gained about 25 pounds. I felt unhealthy.

 At the start of second year, I knew that it was time for a change. By that time, I was used to the course load. I knew that any healthy life habits I wanted to implement were now, or never.

 I decided to try Whole 30. In a nutshell, Whole 30 is a 30-day commitment to no grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, or preservatives of any kind. For me, doing Whole 30 constituted a major lifestyle change. It meant a time commitment every day to preparing 3 meals. It meant weekly grocery trips and planning ahead. It meant saying no to the abounding free food that medical school offers.

 And you know what? I did it! At the end of the 30 days, I can say that I never gave into temptation. Through the process, I learned to shop healthily, I learned to cook, I learned to say no, and I learned that I could do it. I lost some of the weight I had gained since starting school. To my surprise, this investment in myself had no negative impact on grades; indeed, the change even coincided with an increase in my extracurricular involvement.

 Since Whole 30, I have continued eating mostly fresh, healthy foods (albeit, with the occasional free pizza). In all honesty, I really only know how to shop and cook healthily now.  I have begun working out and managed to incorporate this into my schedule without compromising study time. Having tackled healthy eating, I knew that the next thing that I wanted to change was exercising.

 In order to incorporate exercise into my daily routine, I’ve had to change my schedule. For me, my brain stops working optimally at around 9 PM, so I don’t study past that time anymore. In bed by 10, I wake up at 6:15 in order to bike to the gym and begin working out by 6:45. By showering at the gym, I am able to get to the library by 8:15 each day (which, by the way, is a much earlier arrival time than when I wasn’t working out). At dinnertime, I make enough healthy food to bring leftovers the next day for lunch.

 My advice to any health conscious medical student would be to set aside a period of time to analyze what works for you. Do you get your best workout in the morning or the evening? Do you get your best studying done early or late? As future physicians, we will be busy for the rest of our lives. Take the time to get to know yourself and what a sustainable healthy life looks like for you on the go.

 Whole 30 and a dedication to daily exercise has been a huge time and money investment, but also an important life switch: I now see the importance of investing in myself. I feel much more energized and mentally clear throughout the day. Further, I now have confidence in knowing that I can and will accomplish goals in my life when I am dedicated. This newfound confidence applies to all areas of my life. I now have more trust in my dedication to accomplishing personal goals; this trust has translated into an increased fervor in my pursuit for self-improvement. I’ve even seen an increase in goal-oriented behavior directed at my studies. Ironically, the time I spend for myself outside of school has become academically beneficial.

 My ultimate goal since starting medical school has not changed: my focus during these 4 years is to become the absolute best doctor I can be for my future patients. For me, that journey includes dedicated studying, involvement in organizations providing medical care to underserved populations, and now, dedication to healthy living.

-Zach

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