The doctor I aspire to be

This writing was submitted by Jarrett Lee, a Year 2 Monash medicine student, and was first published in The Auricle‘s October-December Edition in 2022.

Human beings are fragile. We cut ourselves while preparing dinner, fracture our limbs playing a game of footy, and damage our organs with a tad too many beers. Medicine, however, never fails to offer a way out on every occasion. We have our wounds stitched. Our bones fixed. Our livers changed. But when confined within the parameters of what medicine is capable of, and confronted with the realities of decline and mortality, we as fragile creatures are often left unready and unprepared. It is often acknowledged that the duty of a physician, in its empirical form, is to fix. We pride ourselves on our ability to repair, to mend and to recover what is broken. But when we encounter a disease that cannot be treated, or a wound that is unable to close, when we as physicians are challenged with a problem that is no longer fixable, herein lies the moral conundrum. Do we forge ahead, knowing that medicine can possibly do more harm than good? Or can we muster up the courage to recognize the finitude of our lives, and accept the painful truth that we are in fact – dying?

As I foray through my last semester of pre clinicals, I grapple with this dissonance – the jarring disconnect between the principles of what medicine can accomplish, and its otherwise obvious reality. And strangely enough, the struggle to understand the inevitability of death and dying, albeit a grim one, has framed carefully my beliefs on what medicine truly sets out to do, and forged, in the crucible of mortality, the cornerstone upon which my beliefs as a doctor-to-be, have been built. Yet above everything, there remains the question,heavy but eloquent, one written so beautifully by Paul Kalanithi in his novel ‘When Breath becomes Air’. A question that seems to shoulder the weight of mortality, yet beautifully encapsulates the soft fragility of human life. And so, I ask – ‘what makes life meaningful enough to go on living?’

In the years to come, I hope to become a doctor, one who can answer this question with much confidence. A doctor brave enough to understand when to recognize defeat, and when to keep on fighting. One who isn’t afraid of telling a young mother that the cancer has spread to her liver, her brain, her lungs and her bones; and that she is almost certainly going to die. A doctor willing to lay down hard truths; that it might betime for her to halt the drugs and the surgery, and instead consider what might truly be important – spending time with her family.

In the years to come, I hope to become a doctor, not one who understands death, but one who understands what comes directly before. A doctor who understands that human beings do not fear dying itself, but the process of dying, the process of losing the very qualities that make us Human. And when that defining moment begins to bare its fangs, I can only hope to be the doctor who dulls the teeth of mortality, so death becomes just a little less – harrowing.

Good Enough, by Charlie Ho

This writing by Charlie Ho from MUMUS Community and Wellbeing, first published in The Auricle‘s Final 2022 Edition describes the weight of external and internal pressure, and how to break free from its constraints.

Mediocrity, such a word reminded me of a bland taste, a lukewarm sensation, an apathetic aloofness. It had evoked in me dissatisfaction, disappointment, even disdain. After all, mediocrity must have resulted from a callousness, an insincerity, negligence of duty. Mediocrity means that I hadn’t worked hard enough or done my best; it was glaring evidence of my mistakes, yet another blemish painted on the proof of what a failure I was. I sighed, then scoffed at myself thinking about the things I could have done differently, a wave of “what-if”s flooding my head. After all, a mediocre result isn’t exactly going to get me anywhere. After all, my best was never good enough. Who cares about my efforts when outcomes are all that matters? I released my breath I had been unconsciously holding. I took a final glance at the report in my hands and tucked it away into the depths of my bag, as it by removing from sight the document would lessen the pang of guilt I felt being branded as mediocre.

That pretty much sums up what used to be my train of thought every time I checked my score and feedback for any assessment. I’m sure it is not an unfamiliar experience among us medical students, given the tendency of doctors being perfectionists. Yet, over time, I have come to peace with mediocrity and learnt to embrace and appreciate the feeling.

Born into the cut-throat culture of Hong Kong, I had been conditioned into viewing life as a race. The real pressure of getting a head start early on in the race was plain as day — parents filling up their children’s timetables with endless classes, extra curricular activities and competitions from the moment they speak their first word, devising a strategy for getting into a “Band 1” secondary school, camping overnight just to be first in queue for a chance of their kid getting in a prestigious kindergarten. Instilled in me was the doctrine that being mediocre was to be left behind, a loser deserving of none other but the worst. Mediocrity was simply not an option, god forbid even mention burning out — if I couldn’t handle a little stress, I must be weak-willed and unworthy of anything.

Of course, that sort of mentality only proved to be detrimental to be mental wellbeing and soon, other areas of my life started to be affected as well — my hobbies, sleep, physical health, relationships — it seemed as if my life had become undone by my own hands, the roots of despair digging deeper and deeper down my mind. All the self loathing begot worse performance which continued the vicious cycle and before long, I hit rock bottom.

Fortunately, you being able to read this piece means that I have gotten better and here is something I wish I could have told myself about mediocrity earlier on.

First is arguably the hardest step. Accept mediocrity and the discomfort that comes with it. Be compassionate to yourself when you don’t meet your own standards. Getting muddled in your head about how terrible it is that you have done a mediocre job is going to be harmful at best and will definitely not help in any way whatsoever. Know that recognising the mediocrity is proof that you care about what you do and is the first step towards improving your craft. It is in fact possible to be your own critic while being kind to yourself.

Next is something easier said than done. Enjoy the process leading up to the end result. If what matters are only results, your motivations may not be the most sustainable and you might consider rethinking your reasons for doing that something, perhaps even consider taking a break and coming back to see if that something is what you truly want to do. Once you start enjoying the process, the end result typically tends to turn out better, while a mediocre result ends up not having that much of an impact on your overall wellbeing, overall increasing your capability in producing a better result.

Last but not least may be the cheesiest advice I’d give myself: even if you never end up with something that exceeds mediocrity, you are and will always be good enough.