Putting the “Me” back in “Medicine”

By Jessica Stark 

Continuous learning, long hours, difficulty with work-life balance. At 18, I said I understood these were the challenges faced by doctors, but at 18, fresh out of school, I didn’t really comprehend what I was agreeing to. I thought it wasn’t that big of an issue, I thought the life of a doctor could only be fantastic. How naive I was. Now on the home stretch of my medical degree, I’m finally reflecting on what I signed up for.

Medicine wasn’t something I fell into. I worked hard at it, and had to make some tough decisions to get where I am today. My family and I sacrificed a lot, but it was all I wanted, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I couldn’t contain my excitement when I got my offer to Monash. Though moving to a new city where I didn’t know a single person was certainly daunting, I wanted this career so much and moving away was just a sacrifice I had to make.

It was difficult; far more difficult that I thought it would be. I missed my friends and family back home enormously, and there were periods of time where I cried every day. The endless lectures, tutorials and histology pracs were often a drag, and I was in major struggle town with anatomy, but I knew it would get better once I entered the hospital. And it did. I relished being part of the team, speaking to the patients and scrubbing into theatre. It was just as I thought it would be, and after finally having contact with patients, I knew this career was for me.

As the years went on, I began to realise the competitiveness of medicine and that it was a bit of a cutthroat world getting into a specialty. It seems like you need at least a master’s degree and several publications, plus experience, to get onto several training programs. How is this meant to possible when you’re also working extensive hours as a junior doctor? How can you work more than full time, study part time, research part time and have a life outside of this? The answer – make sacrifices and work yourself into the ground. At least that’s how it seems to me when I look around at a lot of the junior doctors. I look at my friends who didn’t study medicine with their great work-life balance and I can’t help but be jealous. They don’t have to put their lives on hold for years, and they have far more freedom and time to do the things they want.

Whilst I was told a career in medicine meant long-term study and long hours, I didn’t understand that what they really meant was I was partly screwing over my own life to save other peoples. It’s not that I dislike the career; being in the hospital, helping the patients, coming home in the evening and knowing the difference you’ve made for even just one person is truly special and very rewarding. I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity to help people through difficult times in their life, but I do feel sad that it affects my life and my relationships in so many ways. I feel sad for all the sacrifices I’ve made, and all the ones I’m yet to make.

Only a few weeks into my first rotation of final year I experienced burnout. It seemed odd that after three months of holidays I could feel this way, but the prospect of job applications, getting references and paving a pathway towards a specialty training program, as well as the difficult transition back into clinical medicine after a year in a lab, was just too much. I was recently told by someone close to me that I’m no longer the same person I used to be, that my degree has changed me and the happy bubbly person I once was had disappeared. When and how did this happen? A conversation with my doctor made me realise that I hadn’t really stopped in a very long time. I’ve been studying hard since the beginning of high school and continued straight into med school. I’ve always been busy, juggling a job, committee roles, volunteer work and the responsibilities of living out of home. I have always placed immense pressure on myself, and now I’d reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. My doctor asked me to take a break and do something for myself, something I enjoyed doing, something not related to med. In all honesty, I didn’t know what that was, despite all the advice to keep up hobbies and have a life outside of medicine, I hadn’t, and over the course of my degree I’d lost myself along the way.

After two weeks of lying on the beach, catching up with old friends, going to galleries and plays, seeing new places in a city I’ve lived in for years – after two weeks of starting to live again, I don’t want to go back to “not living”. Whether that means actually taking time for myself regularly and not getting swallowed by the med monster again, or leaving the med bubble entirely, I’m not sure. It’s going to take some more time for me to figure out what the future holds, but just because I graduate as a doctor, doesn’t mean I’m bound to work as one forever. It won’t mean I’ve wasted my degree, or wasted my time, if I choose to pursue something else. I’ll have had some great experiences and learnt so much. My life is important too, and maybe I need to be a selfish and do what’s best for me.



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