14 July, 2018
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The very first time you tell someone you aspire to study Medicine you are met with encouragement & excitement but also warnings: Recounts of friends, family or maybe even their own experience with how hard medicine can be. I don’t think that you truly comprehend how easy it is to be consumed by Medicine until your part of that world. It’s interesting; when you take your first steps in your medical career, you don’t realize how romanticized your idea of the medical field was. You even look forward to being consumed by this field that you had dreamed of being a part of for so long. But the sobering truth is that reality will set in, your head will float down from the clouds and you will ultimately need to balance and maintain a life.
Part of doing this is maintaining and balancing the roles you occupy. By this I mean, being a medical student, but also a friend, family member, co-worker, athlete etc.
Myself as a case study will serve to highlight this, a second-year MD student at Flinders University:
Monday to Wednesday: Typically filled with lectures, tutorials, clinical skills and anatomy/ histology practicals. For most of the year we had dissection assessments Wednesdays and then we studied all day.
Thursday: Weekly Assessments
Friday: Spend the day in interactive tutorials for the remainder of the day. It’s a long day and it’s disturbingly easy to fail to priorities your friends, family or even yourself.
So why should we make time for things outside of University? Mental illness such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are up to 3x higher in Medical students than the general public in Australia. The key to avoiding this is to nurture a sense of purpose and life outside of Medicine. If you take one piece of advice from this article, it is that before you venture into the world of Medicine, you should establish some set roles, interests, passions and a robust identity that you can carry with you.
Building an identity and sense of self can be protective for your health, and deeply enrich your experience in Medicine. Pursuing sports, athletics, the humanities and part-time work are all examples of how you can branch out and become much more multi-dimensional. Those of us who tend to cope the best with the pressure are those that have done just that.
I myself play tennis, run, attend a gym, read, write, participate in environmental advocacy, spend time with family and friends and a relationship. When you create all these avenues and passions which fulfill you, you create means by which you balance yourself, which is crucial in Medicine. However, you need to be wary of your studies in medicine seeping into these other parts of your life. Take the following scenario:
You have a family member who wakes you up from bed late at night. They are having abdominal pain, look acutely unwell, have been vomiting and have a rash on their back. You’ve been in medical school for 8 months. This family member you’ve loved your entire month may, in their desperation, ask you for help, with your 8 months of knowledge. It’s terrifying and ultimately dangerous. But it highlights how easy it is for roles to collide and for you to find yourself very out of your depth.
Scenarios like this are common especially when it comes to family members with chronic illnesses, or again acute situations in sporting clubs, family outings and in your workplace. It’s really difficult and challenges you. You feel an instinctual desire to help, a learned clinical reasoning (albeit very underdeveloped) and also a sense of panic, especially when it pertains to family and friends.
So, you need to create distinctions between roles. Being empathetic to family members, but not clinical. Encouraging them to seek their own medical professionals and maintain the very non-medical relationship you have with them. Helping your friends in acute settings, performing basic first aid, but recognizing your role and again detaching yourself from ongoing medical situations. It sounds easy to do and it’s admittedly very easy to write, but unfortunately, it’s very difficult to practice. I myself have been in these situations multiple times already and failed to delineate my role as son, brother, a friend from a medical student.
It’s important to take off the medical student hat off and relax. It’s important to create hobbies outside of Medicine that excite you and to follow passions that empower you. It’s essential to maintain loving relationships with family and friends to support you. It’s crucial you work out what roles you occupy and when otherwise you may find yourself compromising your own health.
Medicine is an amazing career, it presents numerous opportunities, lifelong learning, the opportunity to create meaningful relationships with people and gain immense fulfillment. However, it is hard, it can be time-consuming and can pervade into all aspects of your life. Understanding when to wear the medical hat and when to do that broad-brimmed hat on the way to a music festival is crucial, not only for your own enjoyment but also for your mental health in the long run. Remember, a happy doctor is a good doctor.