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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The MSI Finale, Summer, and Beginning MSII

I have been living with a new motto recently: learn to enjoy the moment. That being said, I will blame said motto for the extended hiatus between blog posts. This past year has flown by, and I cannot believe I am already in the second year of medical school. It’s been an amazing journey, and I am truly grateful!

GI Module
Neuroscience module came at a great time after spring break and was extremely well-organized, fun, informative, and the easiest module for me. Granted, I was a neuroscience major at William and Mary, so it came in handy. GI module (let me clarify: Gastrointestinal Tract, Hepatobiliary System, Hematology, Oncology, Metabolism and Nutrition Module) was pretty horribly timed. As the last module of first year with no more than Saturday/Sunday to de-stress after our last final, I was burnt out and didn’t even realize it. The first couple weeks of school were killed in terms of productivity because the lottery to determine third year rotations took place throughout the school day and really distracted from learning – especially for the few lecture-goers like myself who found ourselves checking our lottery statuses instead of paying attention and taking notes.

Because the first two weeks of GI module were lottery weeks and the next weekend after that was Memorial Day weekend spent catching up with family/friends, including a lazy tubing adventure in West Virginia, I focused all of my energy studying like mad for the next couple of weeks before midterms. I thought I had appropriate catch-up time studying and actually felt prepared for my midterm exams. At this point, I have learned that feeling prepared for an exam is a major red flag. When I feel prepared – as I was for both MSK and GI midterms – I do far worse than when I have a mini-freak-out the night before an exam. Anywho, my midterm scores motivated me to kick it into high gear, so finals were fantastic. They were redemption for my bruised academic ego. I think I might be more interested in Heme/Onc/Nutrition, so that likely played a part as well. For current USUHS classmates, beware that the GI midterms were a dud across the board for our class and the class before, but I hear that the module directors are working on improvements to see how to fix that trend from the past couple years. Ultimately, it was my worst module academically, but I still passed and feel confident about the information we learned!

The Lottery: Third-Year Rotations
The lottery is quite the system. In the end, it all works out. Basically everyone was happy in the end, and we are getting a great experience at all of the locations. We started out with 100 points, and at least 1 point had to be used for each of the 9 rotations. You can prioritize based on the order you want to do your rotations or the places you want to go. I knew I wanted to get the surgical rotations over with, and being local to northern Virginia, I wanted to stay in the area as much as possible. My order of rotations was definitely not how I originally planned, and I am not going to Hawaii at all despite putting it #1 almost every time. However, I feel particularly lucky and am ecstatic at how my rotations came out.

We had two options: go homestead or go singles. Homesteads group three rotations together in one location. It’s a pretty great deal. It’s less stressful in terms of moving between rotations and less stressful in terms of time towards the lottery during GI module. I am doing my first set of three rotations in San Diego and my last set of three rotations at Walter Reed.

Local locations became vastly more popular this year than previous years because the system for housing at rotation locations changed. Now, we have housing provided for us at rotation locations rather than having an allowance for housing. I myself prefer this, but it was not a pleasant surprise for the folks with families who planned on bringing their kids to different locations. We were told that our lodging is comfortable for a spouse or significant other to stay, so I am excited for Andrew to visit while I am in San Diego!

Stay tuned in 2016 for rotation updates. My schedule is as follows:
– San Diego for Ob/Gyn, Surgical Subspecialties, and General Surgery, January – April [where my mom lives]
– Walter Reed in Bethesda for Pediatrics, May – June
– Offut Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska for Family Medicine, June – July [believe it or not, I’m actually excited for this one too]
– Fort Belvoir, VA for Psychiatry: Addiction, July – August [my selective rotation]
– Walter Reed for Internal Medicine (Outpatient and Inpatient) and my favorite for last, Psychiatry, August – December

AMP101
I had four days off after the end of the school year to run errands galore before leaving for my summer operational experience. All Air Force students go to the Aerospace Medicine Primary 101 (AMP101) course, the first of three required courses to become a flight surgeon/medicine doctor. I road tripped up to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH with a few other USU students and was happy to see my fellow classmates as well as familiar HPSP students’ faces. Of the 70 attendees at our July 6-17 AMP session, the majority were USUHS kids, about 20 were HPSP, and four non-2nd-lieutenants were doctors and reservists who were given the responsibility for accountability. Our AMP session was booked to max capacity. The two June sessions were majority HPSP students and the July session after ours was reserved for mostly physicians rather than students.

First week at AMP101 was death by powerpoint, but I enjoyed the presentations in the sense that I have a much better idea of real life operational Air Force now. The weekend of AMP I attended my first friend wedding at the Alumni House in Williamsburg, VA. It was a blast to my college past, and I was glad to have Andrew meet the fabulous bride and groom – two of my friends from William and Mary. It was a mess of stress to coordinate this. I had been emailing the AMP higher-ups as well as up my own chain of command for a few months to get permission because I needed to take leave and plan my flight back to Virginia – – note that on the Thursday afternoon of the first week, students had the opportunity to switch schedules around with other students to allow for personal trips. We were given three days off that were different based on your group, and I am happy I did all the work and coordination in advance because I would have originally been scheduled for a fly day on the same day as the wedding and would not have wanted to wait until last minute for scheduling.

Reunion of friends at William and Mary for the #LizGoesPro wedding

Reunion of friends at William and Mary for the #LizGoesPro wedding

That being said, I also was at the mercy of weather. For such a large AMP session, we had three groups scheduled to fly on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Unfortunately, Saturday had the best weather and not enough pilots scheduled, so a few students were pushed to Monday fly day when it rained in the afternoon. I was among 8 students who had to go in for a chunk of our Wednesday off to fly. If I had lounged around Ohio all weekend like most folks did, I wouldn’t have minded. However, I was beyond exhausted and sleep deprived. I do not regret going to the wedding, but it most definitely put a damper on some fun activities during the second week of AMP festivities, the highlights for me including the tour of the Air Force museum, flight simulators, and flying the SR-22 Cirrus with a pilot. We had to present a safety brief and study for the final exam, both of which were not difficult at all but involved time and energy I was horribly lacking.

Heads up for those afraid of heights, flying is an incredible experience and not-at-all scary because of how exhilarating it is. It helps that there was a seasoned pilot manning the controls in the passenger seat like driver’s ed.

About to fly the Cirrus SR-22

About to fly the Cirrus SR-22

Summertime Off
After coming back from AMP, I finally had time to catch up with friends and family in the area. It was so very necessary to see the important people in my life that I had trouble keeping in touch with over the past year. As an INFJ often mistaken for an ENFJ, I recuperate by becoming a bit of a hermit and organizing my life. I had to balance my excessive social life with scrubbing the bathroom and trashing random items I hoarded as mementos for my past or references for the future. And of course, there was lots of HGTV/Netflix.

Andrew and I attended a wedding in Long Island that should have been on MTV (it reminded me of those crazy impressive super sweet 16 parties). We also spent several days at Sebago Lake in Maine. I spent the first rainy day reading Go, Set a Watchman. The rest of the days were gorgeous and sunny, so they were filled with paddle boarding, paddle boating, canoeing, swimming, speed boating, and being lazy. It was lovely. We went to Portland for our last full day to shop, eat, and be merry. Lobsters all day, every day.

ACME: TCCC, BLS, ACLS, Antietam March
All the acronyms.
ACME – Advanced Combat Medical Experience, part of MFP 102 (Military Field Practicum)
TCCC – Tactical Combat Casualty Care
BLS – Basic Life Support
ACLS – Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support

We were split into two groups. One group started with TCCC (i.e. “TC3” or “T triple C”) and the other started with BLS/ACLS. I was happy to start with TCCC – we had longer days, but they included fun activities and were reflective of our combat medicine classes during first-year medical school. All we had to do to pass was to study TC3 guidelines and learn the primary/secondary assessment sequences for patient encounters. TC3 was especially fun because we had paintball guns, ran into the forest to save patients, and got to see ourselves on camera to realize we weren’t as much as a mess as we felt during the experience. We also learned medical skills like cricothyroidotomies and chest tubes.

Ready to save some lives!

Ready to save some lives!

In the weekend of ACME, Andrew and I attended our third wedding of the summer and saw two of our friends get married!

In the weekend of ACME, Andrew and I attended our third wedding of the summer and saw two of our friends get married!

BLS and ACLS were more fun for the emergency medicine/ICU personality types. It involved a lot more studying for folks like myself who did not have the background for it, but it was a worthwhile experience. BLS was the simple CPR and defibrillation sequences. ACLS involved leading a megacode team (and being part of a megacode team). It involved a team leader, time keeper, CPR, maintaining the airway, defibrillation, and medications. There was a practical where we could use the all-mighty ACLS card and a written exam based on classroom material (it helps to do the practice questions we were given as well as reading the book/supplementary packet).

I had been looking forward to the Antietam March. It was a 6.5 mile walk/trail/hike that is easy when you aren’t falling behind schedule and basically jogging it with all your gear on. Also, I didn’t mind the rain much because it cooled us down, but rain + jogging = blisters (and here I thought my boots were the most comfortable shoes I owned!). It was a fun way to end ACME and to allow us to compare military medicine from the days of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War to today.

The Official End of Summer
This past weekend consisted of a fun MSI/MSII mixer and an impromptu beach trip to Dewey Beach (the waves were so aggressive!), so I have definitely had some laughter and sun before hitting the books hard again. Cheers to this past year and making it to Reproduction and Endocrinology Module!