Whenever I have to explain to a friend or family member on a Thursday why I haven’t returned a phone call or text from Monday (something I never really did before I entered medical school), I find myself saying over and over, “Every year of medical school you think to yourself, ‘There is no way I could get any busier than I am right now.’ And then, the next year comes and proves you wrong.”
Though it took me about a semester to settle into MS-1, I eventually figured out a good balance that allowed me to work out at least three days a week, cook at home regularly, and have time on weekends to do…well, whatever I wanted. I rewarded myself with a pedicure after every exam, not for getting a certain grade, but just for having the emotional fortitude to study that much! My commitment to self-care intensified during MS-2, even as I took on more studying and faced the daunting task of preparing for Step 1. I mean, although I had lots to do, my time was relatively unstructured, and I could more or less take care of medical school tasks on my own schedule.
Making room for self-care during MS-3 would not be so simple. After taking Step 1, I had a 10-day vacation before entering third year, which entails juggling weekly lectures, clinical hours and responsibilities, course assignments, and studying for shelf exams. Suddenly compelled to work a 12-hour day and then find the willpower to study afterward, I was constantly on the go and my whole routine flew out the window. This first half of third year left me struggling to make it to my beloved barre class even once weekly. Instead I was studying on most weekends and ordering Vietnamese take-out more often than I care to admit. Whatever limited free time I felt like I had at the end of second year vanished.
Over the past few days, a couple of significant things have happened that made me reflect on all these changes. Yesterday I took my last shelf exam of the semester, officially finishing up my Psychiatry clerkship. It’s an interesting six weeks that forces students to consider the mental and emotional aspects of patient care. In the outpatient setting in particular, it involves not only dispensing medications but also encouraging patients to make lifestyle changes or begin counseling to improve their overall wellbeing. I encountered many patients going through very stressful life changes, just like I was, who could have benefitted greatly from making adjustments in their daily lives so that they would have time to focus on themselves.
Additionally, a recent meta-analysis from the Journal of the American Medical Association made headlines by concluding that 1 in 4 medical students worldwide exhibit depressive symptoms and 1 in 10 contemplate suicide. Those numbers are absolutely staggering to me. They mean that, statistically speaking, 20-25 of my young, brilliant, and capable classmates will have thought about suicide before graduation day. Not only that, I noticed after reading the article that I sometimes felt like a hypocrite telling my psychiatry patients to make sure to sleep and eat right when I had bags under my eyes and was on my 3rd cup of coffee that day. It made me realize on a personal level how important my self-care routines are, especially when it feels like there isn’t enough time for everything I want to get done. When I think about it, that hour spent at barre will help me calm my nerves and study more efficiently tomorrow. One extra home-cooked meal a week doesn’t take so much time as to jeopardize my shelf score. And after a job well-done, I deserve that pedicure, dang it! After all, it’s worth it to keep myself happy, motivated, and as unstressed as possible during this sometimes taxing but often rewarding process.
Now, I’m off to enjoy some time off – if you can’t find me, I’m probably at the nail salon.