The Existential Crisis of a Second Year Medical Student

As someone who never intended to be a doctor growing up, I struggle with this crossroads at times where I am losing the side of myself I find most precious and dear. I worry about losing the girl who loves creative writing, reading fiction, watching political discussions, and contemplating the philosophical complexities of humanity and how we fit into this strange world.

My interests go far and are certainly not limited to science or medicine. I could have chosen many professions, but of them all, I most preferred becoming a doctor. Perhaps my reasons are the same as others, for the cliché reasons of wanting to help my patients. And I find the functioning of the human body amazing. Studying medicine is useful both in practice and in my own life. Mostly though – I am inspired by the pain of the human condition and how I can play a part in using my knowledge to take that pain away.

I began the second year of medical school feeling confident in my abilities as a student. I excelled academically and knew how to study for exams. Reproduction and Endocrinology Module set me off on a good start for second year and certainly helped for my first rotation in Ob/Gyn. Multisystems Module felt like the academic time to tie up loose ends, build on previous concepts, and reminded me that microbiology is more complicated than I realized. I had a great run and ended up with a distinguished performance award for pre-clerkship didactics. The first year and half of my medical school career were some of the best times of my life. I figured out a routine and thoroughly enjoyed my free time. I stayed close with friends and family and got to spend time in my favorite area (northern Virginia ie home).

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Jessie and I at her wedding!

My last real break this past winter felt like more work. I spent the majority of my time packing my entire apartment into storage amidst construction due to a flooding/molding issue and catching up with friends in the area before heading out to San Diego for rotations. I spent a few days in Sacramento (Andrew’s first trip to California!) for Jessie’s wedding – first time I was a bridesmaid. I learned about how American weddings normally go and got to wear a beautiful dress and take part in their beautiful wedding. Jessie and Andrew (her husband is also named Andrew) had a lovely ceremony and amazing New Year’s wedding party.

USUHS is unique in that we go out on rotations halfway through our second year of medical school and postpone Step 1 exams until after our “clerkship” rotations (Ob/Gyn, Surgery, Pediatrics, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Psychiatry, and an elective). 3.5 months in San Diego for Ob/Gyn and Surgery was the longest time I have been away from Virginia.

The first few weeks of Ob/Gyn, I was insanely enthusiastic and enjoying learning. As the days continued, I began feeling the enthusiasm wane a little as my days consistently dragged longer, as I was missing home, as I felt like I was never good enough. Being a medical student at a teaching hospital is being at the bottom of the totem pole. Some doctors want to help you climb up and others will stand on you and ignore you. Ob/Gyn in San Diego consisted of 5 weeks: complicated obstetrics, labor and delivery, reproductive endocrinology and infertility, gynecology, and oncology. I loved getting a taste of everything, but it was exhausting switching teams weekly. As soon as I felt comfortable, I had to start all over. The program director was amazing and the experience was great to start out with as Ob/Gyn exposed us to the wards, surgery, and clinic.

The next 10 weeks were surgical rotations: cardiothoracic surgery (I held a heart – it was cool), ENT (great life experience), and general surgery. My existential crisis pretty much compounded itself during surgery when I began questioning whether I fit into medicine as a culture. I enjoyed my weekend trauma shifts, met inspiring people, and did awesome things in the OR. Something just didn’t click though.

During my time in San Diego, a beautiful friend of mine from college took her life. I think about her in waves of mixed emotions, and sometimes I find myself falling apart at the thought of the world losing such a lovely person. It got me questioning the purpose of life and what I want to get out of it. San Diego represented this new phase in my life where I no longer felt confident in who I was as a person anymore. I survived because of the beautiful weather, my amazing USUHS classmates, and my mom.

On days I question why I wanted to become a doctor, I try to remember what brought me to this moment. When I feel like a failure, or feel exhausted, or wish I did something else with my life, I try to think about the superficial struggles in life that tear us apart. The little things keep us going, but the little things are also enough to break us down.

I define myself by my academics, life choices, dedication, compassion, need to learn, and by my desire to change the world. I want to be a writer, but I don’t know how to write anymore. I want to be a doctor, but I am only beginning to understand what that entails. I want to stand out, yet I find myself hiding as if I am ashamed of being caught, of people thinking that I do not belong in this field because I question it. Is it bad to not love anything enough to want to do it for more than 12 hours a day every day? Is it bad to say that by throwing myself into one facet of my being, I feel like I am losing the rest of who I am? I try to take a deep breath at the end of each day – both the good and the bad – to reflect and remind myself that I am in a microcosm of medicine that is but a small piece of my career and future. I may not be the philosopher or writer I once hoped I would become, but I cannot lose the humanities side of myself and part of me that is so deeply engrained to love my patient more than I love medicine.

I might not enjoy new uncomfortable situations, but I constantly find myself doing things I never planned to. I sometimes think I crave challenges just to prove to myself that I am capable. That probably factored into my choice of commissioning into the Air Force (one of the best life decisions I have ever made). The military forces me to experience the world in ways I never would have otherwise.

Anyway, the existential life crisis continues. Throughout medical school, I assumed I would pursue psychiatry, but I am definitely considering pediatrics. I beyond LOVED my pediatrics rotation at Walter Reed, and it reinstated my faith in medicine. For the first time throughout my rotations, the faculty and patients made me feel like I belonged in medicine, which is a beautiful thing. I had never picked a baby up before nor changed diapers, and now I am pretty much pro at both (nursery week was my favorite). It is funny to think back at the cardiothoracic surgeon attending who kept calling me a pediatrician, because he said I was “too nice to be a surgeon.” Pediatricians definitely won the prize for most friendly field thus far.

So that brings me to now – I am currently in Omaha, Nebraska during this transition to being a third year medical student. Family medicine has been treating me well, and I love being with the Air Force. As opposed to the San Diego experience where I questioned if I should be in medicine at all, Omaha is giving me time to figure out how and where I fit in because the options are endless.

Pretty sure existential crises are healthy parts of introspective awareness. I have been doing way too much thinking this past year and could not figure out how to get it into words, so I appreciate anyone who took the time to read my stream of consciousness written on a late Sunday night.

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