A letter to the lonely medical student:
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I just finished my second year of medical school, took Step 1, and started rotations alongside my classmates. I have wanted to be a doctor since I was 5 years old. I have taken all the right steps to get here. I have volunteered and shadowed, kept my grades up, and learned as much as I could whenever I could. Right now I am living the dream that my 5 year old self couldn’t even fully imagine, yet some days, actually a lot of days, the dream and idea of being a doctor one day is the only thing that keeps me going. This is lonely. This is hard. We miss family events. We miss hanging out with each other and our friends. We work hard to make good impressions, make new networks and connections, but lose some of the very relationships that supported us to get to the point that we’re at.
So many people see the good. They see prestigious opportunities, research publications, volunteer awards, and they’re proud. Few people see the really ugly sides. They see the extreme pain, they support us through the loneliest days. They see the insecurities, the weaknesses, the loss of strength when we have been too strong for everyone else, when we just can’t handle the pressure we’re putting on ourselves. These are the people who everyone should recognize. These are the people who keep us going, make the dream a reality.
In medical school, there are so many seasons that nobody really talks about. There are times we are so excited to begin new classes, to learn from new surgeons, to participate in patient care. Then there are other times that you’re struggling through a class or studying for Step 1. In the last few months, while preparing for the biggest exam that I had taken to date, I found myself in more pain than I can communicate. This is not what people talk about. They don’t talk about missing siblings soccer games and dinners with your dad. They don’t talk about not being able to go with your friends or significant other to enjoy the hobbies that they enjoy. They don’t talk about the pure isolation that so many students experience.
So, I am going to talk about it. I’m going to write about the pain and the hardships that my friends and I experienced. The pain and the hardships that our families experienced. When we’re in these phases where we can’t see the end, we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are so stressed that we don’t recognize ourselves when we look in the mirror. These are the things that I wanted to know before starting these seasons. I wanted to know that there would be joy after finishing these awful phases. I wanted to know that there was hope. I wanted to know that our families will forever support us, love us, and understand the sacrifice from their point of view too. In the lonely season, this isn’t what we know. This isn’t what we think about.
To the lonely medical student, the one who feels that they don’t know themselves anymore, the one who feels like the dream isn’t what you thought it was, the one who is in a place where you can’t process your emotions whatsoever, you will be okay. You will get through this phase. You will get to the end of this phase and you will be so proud. You will be proud of yourself for what you accomplished. You will be so proud of your support system for their own sacrifices and ability to support you at your worst. You will get to the next phase and remember why you had this dream as a little kid. You’ll round on your first patient as a third year student and almost cry tears of joy right then and there because this is it. This is what you dreamt of. This is what you worked for. This is what you have planned for your entire life. You finally can be proud of yourself. You finally can see why you put yourself through all of the pain and sacrifice and have joy in the experience again.
You won’t be lonely forever. You will be surrounded by love, appreciative patients, and professionals that encourage and challenge you. You can do this. Every student before you did it, and every student after you will too. Love your people through their darker phases. Make sure they aren’t too lonely. Give what you can give, but know when it is okay to take too. Your support system only knows you need support when you communicate with them. Take the night off to have dinner with your siblings and parents. In the business of chasing the dream, don’t lose sight of who you are, the people who made you that way, and the people who continue to morph you into the doctor that you will one day be.
To the lonely medical student,
I see you and I am you and I am proud of you. Keep going. Keep working. Keep doing everything you can do to chase your dream.
Student Doctor Kristen Stringfellow