If you asked anyone to list out some characteristics that they thought would make an excellent physician, compassion and selflessness would undoubtedly be somewhere at the top. No surprise there - a doctor who’s a complete ass and makes their hospital look bad would get fired pretty quickly in the “real world.”
However, the path towards becoming a physician inherently fosters the exact opposite of both traits - to have the GPA/MCAT, complete resume, clinical, and research hours, Pre-Meds are expected to regularly place their career ambitions above friends, relationships, family, and outside interests; it’s the norm to expect “true Pre-Meds” to be selfish by prioritizing their future above others.
To an extent, it’s possible to maintain some sense of balance, but very few are able to effectively have it all. There are only so many hours in the day, so every decision impacts the amount of time leftover for sleeping, studying, socializing, hobbies, etc. You have three options to invest time in: a social life, your academics, or your personal health (sleep). Now choose two.
In undergrad, I consistently chose my academics and a regular sleep schedule over my social life. It didn’t take very long before my friends started calling me “4.0 Jenny,” but once everyone started to expect my excuses for not coming out to parties and dinners, I stopped receiving invitations altogether.
On top of having no close friends, I rarely called or visited my family at home. I only visited my boyfriend on weekends, even though we lived (literally) less than a mile from each other. To put it simply, people would be shocked (and somewhat horrified) if they ever saw me in public.
As someone who used to harbor serious trust issues, I didn’t see anything wrong with this at the time. I had no interest in making new friends because most of my previous friends never stuck around when I needed them anyway. Ultimately, all I cared about was making sure I would become a doctor, especially since I had already worked so hard to get here in the first place.
So let’s pause and reflect for a second. Does anything that I just wrote sound at all like someone who demonstrates selflessness or compassion for others? Absolutely not - I was literally the very definition of a narcissistic, unattached Pre-Med, yet I was on track to attend medical school.
At some point, my determination to achieve my goals got to the point that my choices became more and more selfishly fucked up.
When my grandpa passed away, the very first emotion that I felt wasn’t regret or sadness. It was anger. I was actually angry at my grandpa for passing away on a weekday, two days before my OChem midterm, because it meant I had to drive home to attend a funeral and not study. I was angry when I received the text from my sister that read, “Grandpa just died” because I got it while in class and I couldn’t figure out whether I should leave and make up the lecture notes later or focus on the material and process what I just read after class.
Words cannot describe the amount of conflict and guilt I felt when I stood in front of his casket at the funeral. If my family ever finds this post, this is why I couldn’t, in good conscience, look at him and tell him how much I missed him in Vietnamese. And as messed up as I know this is, this is why I wasn’t crying at the funeral - I couldn’t silence my resentment and allow myself to fully process that my grandpa was actually gone.
In high school, I had a classmate who was a year older than me. From my Sophomore year, we were relatively chummy and always butted heads on the most random topics. Although I never said much, she always praised me for my maturity and passion for science/medicine. Before I believed in myself, she had already believed that I was going to “make it” as a doctor and that I would be great at it if I stuck with it. However, once we went our separate ways for college, I stopped trying to keep in touch, and we never followed up on our coffee date reunion. Three years later, she unexpectedly passed away from medical complications. I couldn’t bring myself to attend her funeral out of equal parts regret/shame and the fact that I couldn’t justify pulling myself away from school to figure out how to make the commute.
To this day, I still have not forgiven myself for how I handled their deaths, and it is something that I continue to remember everyday. However, the regret and sorrow I still feel in passing made me realize that success is meaningless if you have nobody to celebrate it with. I mean, what’s the point of working hard to get what you want when you have to make others (or yourself) miserable in the process?
Even though my epiphany happened only two quarters before I graduated from undergrad, it has changed my perspective and approach towards medicine and my future. After reflecting (consistently) on the friends, family, and opportunities I’ve lost to maintain my grades, I’ve made progress in balancing my personal and academic life more effectively. Now, If settling for an A-/B+ means I have more time to see my boyfriend, dog, and parents, it’s something I’m more wiling to do now. Similarly, if my friends need me at 4am in the morning, losing a little bit of sleep to make sure they are safe and comforted is more important. These small, but symbolic steps are the small victories that will come to define the physician, friend, sibling, significant other, and family member that I strive to become.
The selfishness that once helped me thrive academically now pushes me to continue pursuing a medical career. I have lost so much in order to get to where I am today, and a large part of me feels like it would be such a waste to back out now. I can’t undo the fact that I neglected my friends and family, nor can I ever apologize to my grandpa and friend who passed away. However, I can continue to work hard, spend the time that I do have with the ones I love, and ensure that these sacrifices were not in vain. Whenever I help a patient, mentor a child, or positively impact a community, I will always make sure that I remember those I have lost in order to get to where I am today.