October 8, 2021, by School of Medicine

50 at 50: Life Lessons From A Current Medical Student

Aymara sitting on stone steps in front of a wooden door smiling at the cameraAs you approach your first day of medical school, many of you will be excitedly (or nervously) looking up videos on whether to use Anki or Quizlet, reading blog posts of people telling you you don’t need a colander, and trying to figure out whether those nightclub tickets you bought are a scam or not. Although the advice in this blog may not seem like the information you need right now, I am hoping that some of these words will remain in your head and will resonate with you at some point during your medical school career. 

Throughout my life I’ve always been in environments that directly juxtapose each other.  I’ve grown up in a Latino household but only ever lived in the U.K.; in one of the poorest areas of London whilst receiving a bursary to one of the richest independent schools in England.  I felt that this gave me the ability to talk to anyone, as it provided me with an ability to empathise and understand people with different backgrounds. Despite this, at university, I was overwhelmed by the melting pot I’d been thrown into.  I began making friends with people I would never have otherwise met.  Soon, social issues that affected them became social issues that I was passionate about, and I found my perception of the world I lived in drastically changing.  As a doctor, your duty is to provide the best care to your patient.  The patient in front of you will most likely have a completely different home environment to you, different opinions, beliefs and needs.  Being unaware of this, or not taking this into account when interacting with them, may mean that they feel ignored and disregarded.  University is the perfect opportunity to make connections with people who, although they may not be like-minded, can teach you life lessons, provide different perspectives and make you a more empathetic person.  Meeting new people can teach you to connect and understand with someone completely different to you. You never know, in the process you may find friends for life, have the opportunity to experience new cultures and hobbies.  These will, in turn, help you provide better care for those you interact with as a doctor. 

In first year, I met with a consultant psychiatrist as I wanted to explore the specialty further.  I asked him whether psychiatrists have to meet with a therapist once a week to talk through any effects their work may have had on them and if that meant their job is more emotionally demanding than that of other doctors.  He told me, in any specialty you’ll experience death, patients being unwell, and harrowing stories from patients and their family and friends.  Psychiatrists having to see a therapist doesn’t mean their job is any ‘harder’, if anything it provides them with support that other doctors should also have mandatory access to.  He added that doctors don’t like to admit they’re struggling, because they tell themselves that they are more resilient than they think they are, but this isn’t always the case.  Two years later this conversation still comes to mind.   

Starting medical school, I thought I’d find it, well, not easy but straightforward because I was motivated to become a doctor.  Now I realise that not struggling or reaching out for help isn’t testament to your abilities as a future doctor but rather the opposite.  I think medical school is an opportunity to practice checking in with yourself and acknowledging when you need support. You may find yourself making excuses for why you don’t need to get help when you are struggling academically or with your mental health, or convincing yourself you don’t fit this false image of what you think someone who needs help looks and acts like.  This blog isn’t meant to make you think that studying medicine is some sort of uphill struggle, because it isn’t. You will have fun and you will find it rewarding. But it is good to be aware early on that at times it will be difficult.  I want to reassure you that it is normal, and that this should not lead you to question your ability to be a doctor.  If you ever do struggle, the medical school, university and local health services have systems in place to provide you with support.   

So, build a good, honest rapport with your personal tutor, register with your GP, and familiarise yourself with how to book an appointment.  Engage with the wellbeing and support team of the medical school and university should you need to, and don’t second guess whether you should reach out to that family member or friend that you trust.  There is nothing to be ashamed of, and I promise you, accessing these services when you need can not only stop an issue manifesting into a bigger one, but it will enable you to thrive and succeed across many different aspects of your life. 

It’s important that you don’t lose yourself in books and that you keep up with those hobbies you’ve practiced since you were in primary school and that you try out that thing you’ve always wanted to but never gotten the chance to.  If you look up the list of societies on the UoN student union website, you’ll see societies that discuss topics you’ve never heard, sports teams for players of all abilities, and opportunities to travel abroad or volunteer locally.  I find that a challenging but successful (and healthy) way to tackle medical school is to lead a well-rounded life.  There is a principle known as Parkinson’s Law (which has nothing to do with low dopamine in the substantia nigra) that states that the more time you allow for a task, the longer it takes, which is why if you give yourself the whole day to tidy your room, it will take you the whole day.  This is also why we work better under pressure and find that the night before an assignment is due, we magically complete it (despite having had three months to do it).  Make a conscious effort to block out time from your weekly schedule to be physically active, to attend a society or to do something with your flatmates. Why not challenge yourself to cook a recipe or watch that new Netflix show (or all of the above).  You’ll feel recharged to go back to studying, and you won’t be sacrificing your mental health or relationships just to have a couple more hours to go over that lecture.   It is these same activities that will be there to support you throughout your career as a doctor, because they’ll help you to de-stress and thrive in and out of the wards.   

Remember, you’re more than a doctor.  

By Aymara Suarez-Sotomayor, Medical student

Posted in 50 Years of MedicineMedicineStudent LifeWelfare