Slump in the Second Year

I am nearing the end of my second year of medical school, and I think it is almost universally true that at this point in our education, students begin to feel existentially weary of school. Many of us have been students ever since we were six. We have been sitting at desks, writing notes and reading books with no set hours for no pay for at least 18 years. It’s understandable that one might tire of it all, wish for something less relentless, more tangibly rewarding, more obviously relevant to “real life.” The way many of us get through this ennui is to reassure ourselves that something better is yet to come: when we become third-year medical students, we will spend our time interacting with real patients. We will see the effects of our actions reflected in the health and demeanor of these real people. Our days will have defined beginnings and ends. Evening meals and early bedtimes will no longer feel like missed opportunities for more Step 1 studying.

I reject this line of thinking. It shouldn’t be necessary to look forward just to survive the present. Each step of this journey has value. Even if I left medical school today, I will have done something worthy with my time, something with a value independent of eventually becoming a doctor…right? On principle, I believe this idea should be true, but I don’t always feel it. After all, I’m only maybe an eighth of a “real” doctor, and physicianship is such an identity-consuming profession that sometimes it makes me feel like only an eighth of a person. But if I look carefully, there are little things all around me that remind me how much more of a person I’ve become since beginning medical school, no matter how little of a doctor I am.

The other day I interviewed a patient with numerous complaints, some more serious than others. I took an abbreviated history for all her complaints, even the ones I suspected might be too minor to include in my final note to the physician. When I told her it was nice to meet her and sent her back to the waiting area, she turned around and told me how good I was, how I was one of the few people who had ever listened to her, and it was like a little flower of warmth bloomed in my chest. This is the unique privilege of the medical student. Though full-fledged physicians have more power and knowledge, we medical students often have more time to spend with each patient we encounter.

Thinking back, I can see reflections of this recently honed skill even outside the exam room. When I call my friends and family, I ask more questions, listen longer without interrupting. I have more understanding and patience for strangers who previously might have irritated me: the slow driver in traffic, the indecisive cereal buyer, the very chatty cashier. I guess I might have learned these things without cramming in all the diseases and drugs and physiology as well, but I also might not have. So on days when I go to sleep too late after studying things I don’t find interesting with hardly a memory of a fresh meal or non-academic conversation and wonder why I ever signed up for this, I remember little moments like this one, little reflections of the better person I have become since beginning medical school, lighting up the shadows of doubt and weariness that sometimes plague us all.


Caitlin Li

I was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina and attended Vanderbilt University for my undergraduate studies. I was heavily involved in Vanderbilt’s fencing club and musical volunteering at the Vanderbilt hospital before graduating in 2015 with a degree in biomedical engineering. I want to become a physician to help people pursue happiness in health and am honored and excited to study medicine at the USC School of Medicine Greenville.

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