If I only told you the short version of my story, you would think I’m an exhausted medical student who can’t answer one more UWorld question, memorize one more drug name, or handle one more diarrhea case. You think that I want to play house while my husband takes care of my needs. While that’s not completely false, there’s more to the story. I, like most of my medical school friends, am only a fraction the person I was when I entered medical school. I’m less ethical and compassionate, but more cynical and numb.
A few weeks ago, I saw a diabetic’s finger that was dead — black, rotting tissue with an ashen nail and pus around the dead base. That illiterate, dirty, poor woman was going to lose that finger and possibly part of her hand. Previously, I would have wanted to talk to her in my broken Arabic to find out about her life and how her disease progressed to this point , but at the time, I was just worried about when I could get my next caffeine fix. Losing one’s finger should be more immediate than caffeine, but it wasn’t for me.
Another example, I was in an APR surgery, a surgery that removes the anus, rectum, and part of the colon. Basically, this woman’s old pooping hole was sewn up and a new one was place on her stomach. You might think this sounds horrible, but it’s really not. You can go swimming with it, run marathons with it, get a six pack with it, have sex with it, or whatever you want. Yes, psychologically, it’s an adjustment, but you’ll have the same lifestyle as you had before the cancer. Okay, back to the story. As they were burning off the last part of the connective tissue, suddenly, two feet of colon and rectum plopped to the floor with a “splat!” The female anesthesiologist exclaimed, “It’s a boy! Because it’s an asshole from birth!” We all laughed as the nurse picked him up with long tweezers. By the way, none of this bothered me: not the jokes, not the surgery and not the plop.
Being in medical school makes you selfish. Each test, each pimping session (when a teacher asks a student questions until s/he cries), each patient report is survival. The first lesson of survival is to save yourself before you save others, and we learned that very quickly. Just don’t fudging fail, and you’ll live to see the next rotation. And you’ll be one step closer to getting out of this place. You justify the dirty tricks you play on your classmates to justify your survival, because when you get out of medical school, you will change back. You’ll be the doctor you always dreamed of being. Then, one day you wake up and realize that your survival mentality has been there for three years and might be there permanently if you don’t do something now.
I’ve been getting high off of my own success. It’s replaced sleeping and eating. Breathing in dark clouds of teacher’s praises have slowly eroded my lungs. The addiction of pride and presumed necessity made it hard to quit. Now, I’m choking on the ethical compromises I’ve made; I’m suffocating on the perpetual mess my life has been in. I worry that the structural damage is permanent. So, I’m taking a year off of medicine so I can heal, and I’m praying that God will be my physician.