Letter to a Friend #4

Author’s note: When I joined the UTMB blog, I wanted to be able to write candidly to you about medical school in the same way that I would to a friend from home. I worried that having an unknown audience would, consciously or unconsciously, change the way that I talk about medical school. To circumvent that, I’ve typed up copies of letters I wrote to a close friend during my MS1 year to serve as my blog posts. When I wrote them, I never thought I’d show these to anyone else, and I think that gave me the opportunity to talk about medical school with the kind of honesty and vulnerability that I’d like to be able to share with others.

Enjoy!

1/6/16

Dear [X],

I’m listening to the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duet album while I write you in honor of your newfound preference for female empowerment jazz singers. It makes me feel classy as fuck. In college there was one winter where every time it got even remotely cold in [university city] at night I’d light my fireplace, start playing some jazz music (I don’t know the first thing about jazz, so I had to google “best jazz albums” to figure out what to listen to), and pour myself a glass of whiskey. The whiskey was cheap, and my laptop speakers made the music tinny, but I still felt like I could be in a James Bond movie. Or at least Casablanca.

Medical school has just gotten better since I last wrote to you. When I first got to medical school, it made me wonder what the hell I’d been doing with my life before I got here—what was the holdup, anyway?

Then I got stomped on by exams.

But now, I have… a pinch more self-awareness, and also a fantastic group of friends. I realized something in one of my courses. I’m in a “track” in medical school, which means I take some extra coursework and don’t get a summer break, but they put on my transcript that I’m a special little snowflake who went above and beyond. I chose the Physician Healer Track. We discuss things like… how to have empathy for both our patients (even when they’re mean) and ourselves (even when we don’t think we deserve it.) We try and actually fucking talk about how half of us are in the bottom of our class for the first time in our lives. I bring this up because we took a quiz about whether we respond to our problems with blame, shame, or guilt. For example:

You’re at a party at a classmate’s apartment. You’re drinking red wine. You walk into a room by yourself, and you spill red wine all over your classmate’s white carpet. Do you think:

  1. Wow, why the fuck would you get white carpet anyway? You’re just asking for disaster.
  2. I’m a terrible person. Oh lord. I suck. God.
  3. Shit shit shit I shouldn’t have done that! I really wish I hadn’t spilled wine on the carpet. This is so embarrassing. Fuck.

The idea is that you respond to a lot of things with either A) Blame B) Shame or C) Guilt.

For almost everything on the quiz, I felt super guilty. Like, it wasn’t anybody else’s fault, and I didn’t think I sucked as a person, but I’d done something stupid and needed to apologize. But there were a couple exceptions, one of them glaring. When the quiz asked about failing an exam or having a boss call me out on my work performance… Pure shame. Just taking the quiz and thinking about it made my cheeks start flushing.

So I have this fatal flaw. And I know it. But I’m like a character in a fucking Greek tragedy — I don’t know how to avoid my fate. But I’m working on it. I’m trying. That’s what I mean by self-awareness. Right now I’m kind of… In remission. I figured my shit out. I did well in college by always attending lecture no matter what, taking notes, and then going home and chilling out. I’d nap in the afternoons, and some days I’d do homework.

Then I got to medical school and that strategy got me… exactly nowhere. I COULD NOT learn anything in lecture, even with notes. I actually called my parents because I thought maybe something was wrong with me. Turns out, none of my classmates know what’s going on in lecture. A lot of our lectures are given by PhDs instead of MDs. And like… The PhD walks to the front of the room, turns his back to us, and reads off a powerpoint for an hour, like he accidentally wandered into a room and started mumbling to himself and isn’t even aware that there are 230 medical students sitting behind him. Sometimes I think the PhDs hate giving us lectures as much as we hate sitting through them, and this is their retaliation. Like they’ve realized they won’t be asked to lecture again next year if they give the worst lecture of a class, and so they’re all locked into this terrible competition to give the fabled Worst Lecture.

Anyway, so I stopped going to class at all. Medical school could basically be a mail order course now. But my grades are GREAT. Basically… Everything came together, and I can’t think of a way for life to be any better. But I know if I bomb another round of exams, I could fall into the same trap if I’m not careful. I’m hopeful though.

To answer your question

Top 2 moments of 2015

  • Yesterday I attended the most important lecture of my med school career. Technically it’s 2016 already, but screw the rules! In 2009, a UTMB student named [redacted] committed suicide. He was in the top 15% of his class and had just finished his 3rd Once a year ever since, his parents come back to Galveston to talk to the freshman class about the day their son died.

I cried, [X].

There was no way I could’ve been prepared for that lecture. I was a little embarrassed until we got up at the end and I saw 229 other students with puffy eyes and sniffling noses. The moment I broke was when his mom and dad, almost 7 years after their son’s death, started to cry while talking about how they couldn’t save him. And it occurred to me that it could just as easily be my parents up there. Not that I’m suicidal or anything, don’t get me wrong. See again: very happy right now. But… his story was so raw and universal that it felt like it could’ve happened to any of us in that auditorium. Picturing my parents standing every year in front of 230 strangers in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—they could reach out to one of these kids and make a difference in a way that they never could for their own child… You’re damn right I cried.

As soon as it was over, I called my mom to tell her how much I loved her.

  • I was struggling with my med school secondary applications last fall. It just felt like I was putting the culmination of my life’s work onto paper, and what if some admissions officer decided that it wasn’t enough? WHAT THEN? I’d only finished one secondary application when I got the phone call. [Other medical school] would like to interview me in a couple weeks. Would that be alright? WOULD THAT BE ALRIGHT? FUCKING HELL. I was so ecstatic that I finished the rest of my secondary applications that afternoon.

I’d apologize for how long this letter is, but let’s be real: you knew I was loquacious before you ever agreed to be my pen pal!

Questions for you:

  1. What is your most treasured memory?
  2. Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?
  3. What do you feel most grateful for in life?

Love always,

[Anonymous]

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