Quarter Century Update: Writing, CPR, Neuroscience, and Finding a Balance

This might sound silly, but I am destined to do something great with life. Perhaps we should all feel this way to some degree. It drives my intrinsic motivation haywire and might explain my joining the military to be a physician. This might also explain why I feel a lurking presence telling me I should be doing more. I want to do something great, but I cannot tell you what that is yet. If it’s not medicine, I want it to be a book.

My greatest goal in life is to write a novel. Nothing like the ramblings in this blog, mind you, but something more legitimate. There’s a story I have been wanting to tell for quite some time. Still cannot figure out how I want it to end though. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I put the pieces together and start letting my stream of consciousness take over into something of substance.

An unfortunate thing about creative writing: I am most motivated in times of emotional despair. Words come easily when my amygdala is on fire. Probably related to why the most amazing artists have the most tragic backgrounds. I will use that as one of my explanations for the gaps in my blog posts during medical school: I am having a great time and do not feel the need for writing to be an outlet for negative energy anymore. I think I need a new approach: channeling my positive energy into writing as much as I use it as an emotional outlet.

In other news, I turned 25 on Friday. Celebrated at the Cheesecake Factory (my fave) and received warm wishes from friends and family all over. Birthdays 23 and 24 don’t feel like too long ago, yet so much has happened in the past couple years, let alone the past few months. For one, my first-author manuscript about hippocampal volume changes in childhood-onset schizophrenia has been accepted for publication in Psychological Medicine! Achieving a first-author publication has been a dream since I first looked into working at NIH. I have experienced my fair share of projects falling through last minute, as is the case with medical research. I am lucky to have a few co-authorships, but achieving that first-author was a battle and great success.

For anyone curious about post-winter break USU curriculum, CPR (cardio-pulmonary-renal) and Neuroscience modules have certainly lived up to their reputations. Most organized modules but also the most difficult. Rumor has it that school is much easier during GI module, which seems like a break in comparison. Honestly though, in CPR I began relaxing more and successfully struck a balance in this work-life business that people say you lose during medical school.

Medical school is about balancing priorities. Mine are academics, mental wellness, physical health, and family/friends (I show up to the important things)… with my priorities in that order on a normal school day. Others likely have a different order, especially if they have children, focus on extracurricular organizations, or are social butterflies. We all have our own methods of studying and we all have our own methods of decompressing. You do you.

CPR was a great opportunity to find that balance, and I have kept it up in Neuroscience. The module directors in both of these modules are beyond accessible and approachable; faculty members genuinely want their students to succeed. I watch a lot of television these days, but I feel my time spent studying is more high quality (I will let you know if I am singing a new tune after Tuesday’s midterms). CPR and Neuroscience have Dean’s Time galore (2-3 free afternoons a week), making it easier to keep up with the material. I find this is the case more so with Neuroscience because CPR had dozens of assignments due (plus I was not a huge fan of the graded small group sessions), but the nice thing in CPR was having a full week dedicated to both midterms and finals. My preferred study style is old school: by myself, with papers and notebooks. Some other classmates prefer the group style and/or computers/tablets.

Our combat medical skills classes have been pretty cool the past few rounds. Military Medicine is an overarching module we have interspersed in our curriculum. We’ve learned how to intubate and other methods of establishing an airway, how to appropriately assess a patient at a scene and safely transport them, and we’ve done basic IVs on each other. Later this week, we will be doing more advanced IV techniques (still on each other) that involve injecting local anesthetics. I’m both excited and terrified! [Note: no one is pressured to perform the procedures or to have IVs done on them, but most people do. The goal is that we know the process and are familiar with these techniques during our preclerkship years].

Life has been treating me well. Today is actually the first day in two months that I have not had a low-grade fever, and I am finally recovering from an unfortunate bout of pneumonia. Oh right, my other explanation for not updating my blog… The Saturday after our CPR midterms, I went on a 7-hour GoRuck event romping around DC with some Air Force buddies. I had a sore throat before the event, which likely predisposed me to catching something more serious. I progressed to full-blown “I have never felt so awful in my entire life” within 24 hours and lost 8 pounds in the first week. Don’t worry, I got my appetite back pretty quickly and found those pounds again. All that matters is I am finally feeling well and got my much-needed energy back, hence motivation to write 🙂

Well, that’s all I have for now. Neuroscience is certainly my favorite module thus far — coming from a Neuroscience major who wants to specialize in something related to Neurology/Psychiatry. No matter your interests, opening a human skull and dissecting brains are surreal and truly amazing.

Stay tuned for an up-to-date COT packing list for those of you heading to Alabama this summer. TBA in a future blog post.

Happy Spring!

Beginning the 2015 Chapter

2014 came and went, and along with it a plethora of emotional highlights I felt along the way: unadulterated happiness and relief with my unconditional acceptance into USUHS, excitement visiting close friends around the world, mixed feelings saying goodbye to the NIH, joy traveling to Brazil for the World Cup with childhood friends, stress when I hastily submitted my research paper for publication, anxiety due to sleep deprivation at Commissioned Officer Training, and passion, resolve, plus occasional fits of overwhelming despair during my medical training.

The MSK module ended on a solid note. I beasted during finals and redeemed myself from a post-midterm funk when I felt beyond burnt out for a few weeks. Without a doubt, winter break was well-welcomed. I spent the better half of our two weeks off in San Diego with my mom – we figured out Uber and adventured the city together. First day consisted of decompressing, food, and a lovely walk in her neighborhood where we could see the ocean and appreciate the great weather. Just what I needed after my first four months in medical school.

My family never really celebrated Christmas when I grew up, so lo and behold, I was in for a treat this year. I woke up to a breakfast feast – filet mignon, eggs, yogurt, and tea. My mom is the best cook ever, and I have been missing out since she’s moved to the west coast! After the necessary time needed to digest, most of Christmas Eve consisted of pool time and me appreciating warm weather galore. As for the evening, we were graciously invited to dinner with the Mormon President’s family and some other church-goers. My mom has become a regular attendee at a Mormon church near her and entered this network of lovely individuals I enjoyed meeting during my trip. [Note: I myself am a little confused about the role of the President, but I knew that he is a trained lawyer by profession. I learned a great deal about Mormonism from my mom, who’s working on a project comparing the Book of Mormon in English to the Persian translation to see if the translations are appropriate in Farsi.] Dinner was delish – ham, cheesy hash browns, green beans, followed by pumpkin and banana cream pies (everything home-made, the President literally whipped cream just before dessert).

Our Christmas Eve festivities were unlike anything I had imagined. After we ate, we all sat together and sang Christmas hymns. I had expected this to be uncomfortable, but I was pleasantly surprised. We all sat in a circle and picked our favorite songs (thankfully there were books for lyrics) while the President or his daughter played the piano. As a first-generation Persian American, it almost felt like one of those perfect families featured in the end of a Christmas movie. It didn’t feel like real life, but I certainly enjoyed it. The Elders joined for hymns later in the night to; this is when I learned that “Elders” are missionaries, with all the ones I met recently out of high school.

After singing hymns, we all dressed up in costumes the President’s wife had made to re-enact the nativity scene. My mom volunteered herself to be the Virgin Mary, and I played two roles: an angel and a wise man. Truly one of the most fun and memorable Christmases.

Virgin Mary (mom in the middle), three wise men, and Joseph on the right.

Virgin Mary (mom in the middle), three wise men, and Joseph on the right.

On Christmas day itself (with more steak and eggs for breakfast), my mom and I went to Seaport Village and Coronado Island, enjoying seafood, the warm weather, beautiful views of water, shopping, and a festive evening at Coronado Hotel.

In Seaport Village

In Seaport Village

After Christmas, I spent a good amount of time with family friends in the area, some of whom I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years! It’s amazing how at home you can feel with certain people, picking up just where you left off no matter how many years have passed. My ‘cousin’ took me to La Mer, so I got some face time with the ocean.

My last full day in San Diego was truly beautiful and my favorite day of the trip. My mom and I gallivanted all over La Jolla, which seemed to have all the fun activities packed into one area – with the beach, the lounging sea lions, an outdoorsy picnic area, shops, and restaurants. We showered each other with some much-needed love and attention before we parted ways the following day, when I returned to the real world of Virginia.

The week before classes began consisted of working on my NIH paper and seeing friends in the area, but mostly working on my paper revision. After recently catching up with some friends/former coworkers from NIH, I realized how much easier medical school feels in comparison! It’s nice to be a professional student. I enjoyed the longest lunch ever with my fellow genetics IRTA the other week and had this epiphany that she (along with Andrew and the IRTA she replaced) was one of the few people who were intimately a part of my post-graduation transformation. I don’t know how to describe that post-graduation phase I know many of us experience… It was certainly a time of figuring out my priorities in life and what I wanted from myself, others, and my environment. Few people in the world know you on that deeper level, and seeing her felt like this unexpected reminder of the younger Afsoon before she grew up.

So here we are. Break has come and gone, and classes are in full force. Despite the cold, which generally arrests my sense of productivity as my body and mind become increasingly lethargic, I have been faring pretty well this winter (knock on wood). Somehow I anticipated the cold to be much more gripping coming back from San Diego than it turned out to be. Warm weather was paradoxically a cure to my cold-weather loathing simply because I expected the cold weather to be so much worse.

The CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary-Renal) module has been more unrelenting than others, and yet, I feel like I am managing time better. Maybe I needed that positive encouragement on the first day back to school when I was awarded a free Gray’s Anatomy textbook for getting a 100% on my anatomy exam in MSK [I hate to be the nerd that says good grades are motivating, but they are.] I felt like I was trudging through medical school for a few weeks last module, and I finally have the energy and motivation to manage a better work-life balance that I didn’t have before. Maybe it’s because I started Crossfit too – something about lifting heavy weights and my muscles hurting 24/7 has helped me focus more and take the necessary breaks away from school and thinking too hard about science and medicine. Then again, Crossfit is also pretty intimidating, so maybe med school has simply become less intimidating.

Midterms are in a week, and I need to pick up the pace for our big exams coming up. I went overboard and bought prep books galore – including BRS (board review series is amazing) physiology, BRS pharmacology (pharm is a subject area I need to work on), First Aid Organ Systems, and a book on how to read EKGs. Granted, this might have been a response to well-deserved me-time rather than study-time. Andrew and I celebrated our two-year anniversary last week! Our second celebration at L’Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, where the ambiance and food make the experience worthwhile. I’m lucky our anniversary falls on a three-day weekend so I can carve out time from studying with zero guilt or anxiety. We spent a fabulous Saturday watching Breaking Bad and enjoying our fancy meal at L’Auberge. Grateful for Andrew who’s supported me from pre-MCAT NIH days to military medical school today. He’s the best fake patient for all my practice medical interviews/physical exams.

December and January have been good months to me. I addressed a few long-standing goals of my life. I bought a tablet (feeling pretty fancy as I get with the ages). I learned how to study (it’s an ongoing process, but I think I finally figured it out…for now). I began reading regularly (for fun, nothing with too much intellectual substance). I sleep more than I used to and still make time for Netflix. I think I understand how blood flows in the body and might even identify some murmurs accurately. Most importantly, I got to spend much-needed quality time with my mom.

From Montgomery to Nashville to USU Orientation

As a COT-graduate, I had been entirely too sleep deprived. Right after the graduation festivities on Friday, everything still felt rushed with the campus bustling and people all over Morehouse Hall exchanging goodbyes and luggage. Andrew and my dad helped me pack my belongings into my dad’s car (well, the car that said “Distinguished Visitor” on the license plate – I learned from one of the administrators that the Air Force views SES as equivalent to 3-Star Generals and the Army generally views them as the civilian equivalent to 2-Star Generals. Makes me proud!). 

I had the opportunity to show my dad and Andrew downtown Montgomery when we grabbed lunch in The Alley near the Riverwalk. I scarfed down a bacon cheeseburger like nobody’s business. My dad bought wine, and we celebrated my accomplishments/survival. I mostly celebrated the ability to see my family and go home and sleep (you’ll notice this theme of SLEEP will come up frequently). After lunch, we picked up Charlie (my 2006 Honda Accord) from the shop with her new battery. McGriff’s Auto Shop proved to be a great spot right next to Maxwell AFB (suggestions for future COT-goers who have their batteries die…I heard of a number of individuals with this problem, probably because we had to leave our cars unattended for a few weeks). Beware of politics if you mention you’re in the Air Force though. The guy working at the auto shop certainly had his opinions about “Barack Obama negotiating with terrorists” and I prefer to steer clear of such conversations with strangers, namely to avoid political affiliations with the military. Remember: whoever the President is, he/she is your Commander in Chief!

Once we got back to base (I’m beginning to rock the car salute), we all decided to take a power nap in the Fairchild suite my dad and Andrew were staying at. Originally, Andrew and I planned on driving to Nashville after dinner as a pit-stop on the way home – we both have friends in Nashville and have never been to Tennessee. However, this power nap turned into a 4+ hour affair. Neither my dad nor Andrew wanted to wake me up, and I am grateful they didn’t! After waking up, showering, and having a cup of coffee, I was finally ready for dinner. At this point, it was sometime after 9pm, and we set out back to The Alley. My dad and Andrew were both very impressed by Montgomery, and I attribute that to my tour guide skills of downtown. Enjoyed some Mexican food, some margaritas, and some good old-fashioned conversation.

Blurry photo of Andrew at El Barrio in Birmingham, Alabama

Blurry photo of Andrew at El Barrio in Birmingham, Alabama

My dad’s flight went out Saturday morning, and Andrew and I headed for Nashville a couple hours after. Because of traffic, our 4-hour drive turned into an 8-hour drive (somehow there were 4 accidents on the one highway we were taking). We managed a pit-stop in Birmingham, Alabama, and to the suggestion of my Alabammer flight mate, we went to El Barrio, a fantastic Mexican food place in the downtown area that had A+ breakfast burritos. Very cool ambiance. Several hours later, we made it to Nashville! Andrew treated me to the Marriott with a view of Vanderbilt Stadium. 

View from our hotel room

View from our hotel room

Soon after, Ben – a William and Mary friend who I knew through Project Phoenix (a tutoring/mentoring organization), APO (a community service organization), and math/science classes, currently getting his education degree at Vanderbilt – picked us up for a driving tour of Nashville and dinner at Five Points Pizza. If I was a Yelper, I would have given fabulous ratings. I never realized what a small city Nashville was, and it has so much Southern character. After dinner, the three of us went to Andrew’s friend’s place. His friend is managing a band in Nashville, a great city to kick start a music career. His friend, also named Andrew, took us bar hopping and gave us a variety of scenes – from underground bars to Broadway street. Music was everywhere. The streets were absolutely packed. I have never seen so many bachelorette parties in one location! 

Broadway Street in Nashville, Tennessee

Broadway Street in Nashville, Tennessee

After our half-day in Nashville, Andrew and I had to make the drive back home Sunday morning, which was really painful due to traffic and poor pit-stop experiences, including a gas pump in Knoxville that kept going after my tank was full, resulting in gas spilling over onto my feet. Eating at Cracker Barrel eased our hanger – don’t judge, I’m a huge Cracker Barrel fan.

Once we made it back to Northern Virginia, I had this brief existential moment when I realized I had changed. COT definitely had a greater impact on me than I expected. I have this huge appreciation for being home as well as being with the individuals I care about. I also appreciate time to sleep (which I should hold dear to my heart before medical school really picks up). It’s time to prioritize what I value most in life. Spend less time on the things that don’t matter and more time on the things that do. I’ll try to maintain the school-life balance to the best of my ability, but I want to be a qualified physician and will do what it takes to get there. Wish me luck 🙂

I have been attending USU orientation for the past three weeks, the first two designated for Military/Brigade Orientation and the latter week for Academic Orientation. Military Orientation was a little like COT 2.0 with more direction and without the screaming. We had some lectures relevant to the military and mostly filled out paperwork and completed online training programs. Orientation provided ample free time to get life in order. It was a fabulous time to catch up on my social quota with friends and family in the area and to catch up on much-needed sleep. Academic Orientation this past week introduced us to the USUHS curriculum, mostly focusing on the pre-clerkship period in the next year and a half. We had a lecture for our first module, Fundamentals, which basically provides a foundation for the rest of the modules and is Pass/Fail (no honors, unlike the other modules).

I’ve been spending lots of time with my fellow USUHS Bravos and the one amazing USUHS Alpha (I’m clearly still in COT-speak. We have been staying in touch with our fellow Bravos – a few of us went out to U Street when a Bravo from Philly visited last weekend. And our flight commander sent us a final Bravo Bombers morale memo to motivate us for the next stage of our careers). All in all, my classmates seem awesome. Everybody is friendly and always willing to help each other out. Faculty members thus far seem fabulous, both engaging and caring for their students. I am a balance between excited and terrified to embark on the next stage of the journey. Somehow I am already swamped with readings, an essay, online quizzes, and a massive to-do list. First day of medical school is tomorrow! Although I feel quite unqualified, I see my first patient this week and am doing a home visit with a classmate on Wednesday. And so it begins. Ready, set, gooooo!

Wild Turkey on the loose

I had another turkey sighting Saturday before Norouz festivities part deux. I am now considering this turkey a good omen because Saturday was fabulous. Woke up early for body combat and body pump, ran a few miles with Andrew and then walked a couple more, did some errands, filled out AF commissioning/USUHS contract paperwork (gotta love government paperwork), went to a belated St. Patty’s party of a close college friend, and then went to my aunt’s place for another family Norouz. Twas an excellent weekend of productivity and happiness and life. We should drink wild turkey around every Norouz in my omen’s honor.

Eid Norouz

I woke up this morning just like any other day, complained to Andrew that there was too much light creeping through the sheer curtains, complained that I didn’t want to get out of our oh-too-comfortable bed, complained that it was too cold outside for spring. I wanted to eat eggs and watch Desperate Housewives like our Monday snow day, maybe stay in bed and wear pajama pants while reading about the hippocampus and writing an outline for work. Yes, I thought this was going to be like just another day.

I did not pick up on the little things though. Like how I forgot to lay out my clothes the night before, but I picked them out effortlessly in the morning. Like how I didn’t have leftovers to bring for lunch, but I had time to put together the classic PB&J, Persian yogurt, carrots, a banana, and an orange. My tumbler – already clean, a rarity for my kitchen – got to sample the likes of a new chai I purchased on Saturday. No pimples today. My hair required little effort. It felt routine.

I shoved toast in my mouth and rushed out the door. Hitting traffic early on the toll road, I decided to escape to the back roads. At a three-way stop sign, I had wondered why no car was moving. I set out to turn right. Then stopped. In front of me was a turkey strolling along the street. You know how they say, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”…well, maybe it was never a chicken after all. This was definitely a turkey, and I still don’t have the answer for you.

This turkey encounter threw my morning off. I got caught behind a bus stopping every other street, something I had never experienced the dozens of times I have taken this route at the same time of rush hour. At each waiting moment, I was telling myself, “I did not actually see a turkey. That is odd. This is weird.” Eventually I made it to work fully convinced I did not know what turkeys actually looked like anymore. I Googled turkeys on my phone – and alas, there was the culprit. Google also reminded me: it was the first day of spring, and so, the Persian New Year! My winter coat was convincing me otherwise.

Work felt different today. I heard more laughs and saw more smiles. People exchanged pleasantries, and the day passed smoothly. The bagels my coworker brought in helped too (those asiago bagels with salmon schmear…mhmm). I left a few minutes before 5pm with an air of accomplishment. What I thought would be just another ordinary day was quite different. It was the first day of Spring. It was Norouz. The suffocating weight of life stresses had been lifted.

Norouz dinner was spent with family. Lots of snacking from the extravagant haft seen and making fun of the absence of goldfish (nobody could successfully keep the fish alive in the last few years, so my parents decided against them this time around). The food was great, money was given, and we were all merry. Tea and pastries helped calm our stomachs after the meal, and I thought – yes, this was quite the day. Norouz is time to shed the past, welcome the new, and reinvigorate life to the fullest. It’s about love and happiness in all aspects of living.

Cleansed. Renewed. Healed. Makes me ready to wake up for just another day.