At this point, roughly six months have passed since the last time I posted about medical school… for a number of reasons that will hopefully come to light over the course of this entry. Six months– it is a time span that feels trivial while caught in the rigors of schoolwork, yet proves to be enough time to turn one’s life hard to starboard and send them completely off course. While it is one thing to be knocked into an unknown path however, a person who chooses to abandon their present course to set off in an unmarked direction is either a venturer or a madman. This perception I will leave for those who have shared in my journey to make.
On September 8, 2014, my friend Balance posted a tweet expressing his confusion in suddenly experiencing a wave of melancholy. He had experienced such a phenomenon once before when I called him some months ago to vocalize my feelings of distress regarding my schoolwork, but was yet unaware that his sense of foreboding was once again a premonition of an urgent discussion that I would request to have. Later that night, I explained to him my feelings about my situation which prompted him to eventually touch upon the portent feelings he felt that day.
I appear to be exhibiting behavior found in those who are going through extreme sadness. I’m not [actually] sad, but . . . — Tweet by @igfxbalance
I for one believe that at the very least, people have the ability to intangibly sense when something is “not right” with one another. Indeed, Balance’s sudden feelings of dispiritedness mirrored quite well the emotions going through my own mind, considering the magnitude of the news I would share with him later that day: I had decided to withdraw from medical school.
What had been my goal for 4+ years as I trudged through volunteer work, sat through interviews, and spent thousands of dollars in application/travel fees was to be discarded after completing a singular year of medical school. While there were numerous factors in my decision, I chose to do so most prominently because of disillusionment, disdain for the physician (and school faculty) culture, and misgivings about whether I wanted to invest 7+ more years of medical education into a field that will completely change in the coming years. It was not an easy decision, both in terms of “admitting defeat” and having to take away from my parents the distinction that their child was going to be a doctor. Honestly, it was downright painful; even before I officially submitted my paperwork, I began to skip some of my lectures so that I could recollect my thoughts.
…But it was my decision. A voluntary one.
In fact, it almost caught me off guard when my parents immediately sided with how I felt and did not for a moment try to convince me otherwise. Not one single moment. They supported my decision 100% despite the fact that the news was (I’m sure) devastating for them. They knew however that I was not happy– they knew that I felt so worn out by the onslaught of tests and quizzes every week that I would be continuing forward without the flame of passion I once had during my White Coat Ceremony. My parents assured me that we would work through this ordeal and figure out a new direction worthy of my abilities as a family.
Without wasting time, I visited the course director the following day who had in fact coincidentally requested that I see him due to my low score on our most recent test. I was not worried as Dr. Oglesby had always been very kind to me despite his reputation of being a “bit of a jerk” with most other students. He started out by asking me what happened with my exam grade (which I vaguely answered), but I soon shifted the topic of our conversation to how I had been feeling dissatisfied with my schooling as of late. I discussed how I had gone from being an honor student with a full-ride scholarship, a charismatic club president, and a student getting paid enough from their two jobs to actually make money attending college every semester… to a less than mediocre student. Not only was I a student in the lower half of the class rankings, but I was also restricted from contributing as an officer in any clubs or even attending off-campus medical conferences because I was placed on Academic Probation. It was asphyxiating to be put through a stripped down version of school; as per school policy, the only thing I was allowed to do was to study while watching my classmates engage in club activities and guide first year students as TAs.
When I finished, there was a brief silence as Dr. Oglesby paused and walked over to his computer to pull up my file. As he scrolled through my entering GPA and MCAT scores, he spoke quietly (though mostly to himself) that my admission “stats” were higher than the majority of my classmates. He came back over to where I was sitting and looked into my eyes for a couple of seconds before finally breaking the silence. “You look like you’ve been beaten to Hell”.
He believed in me however, and tried his best to talk me out of my decision. He offered to petition the dean to let me continue or to let me repeat first year so that I could create a better academic foundation for myself. He suggested that, since withdrawing from medical school would make chances of admission to another US school unlikely, I could look into options overseas. His point was that if I really wanted to, I could still continue down the path of a physician in some manner. If I really, really wanted to. To hit his point home, Dr. Oglesby suddenly probes, “The question is, do you want to be a doctor?“. It was a question that felt oddly out of place– an inquiry that sounded somehow… foreign. A year earlier, as I was going through my interviews, I would have answered without hesitation. This time I took a momentary pause before responding.
“Respectfully, sir… No… I don’t believe that’s the question at all.” I have been told that I am an excellent speaker, and for whatever reason, those are the words that emerged from my mouth in that moment. Somehow, Dr. Oglesby had managed to epitomize the very aspect of physician education that did not sit well with me– everyone was constantly making a gigantic deal of becoming a doctor. Even half the faculty members calling on students during class would ask, “what do you think, doctor?” (A question that is still burned brightly into my mind along with its annoyingly cheery Brooklyn accent.) At that moment, I felt more strongly than ever that the school focused so heavily on why being a doctor is the most rewarding profession in the world that students would get blinded from all the other aspects of healthcare aside from becoming a doctor.
I responded to Dr. Oglesby’s question in full and described to him how I no longer felt that life’s goal should be to become a doctor. I explained that I would very much like to stay involved in healthcare since I entered the field because I truly did enjoy caring for people, but also recognized that even such a worthy cause should not sacrifice one’s time and happiness. There are more valuable goals in life than the distinction of a title– there are families to be created and lives to be led. People like me cannot put their hobbies and personal time on hold for the better part of a decade and then resume it without throwing away a formidable chunk of their humanity. The journey has to be enjoyed… not merely its outcomes, for people only get one shot at life. I knew that there were ways to serve in healthcare, enjoy a flexibility of one’s time, and to live with a comfortable enough income to one day raise a family without being a doctor; such long term concepts as the prospect of eventually “settling down” never felt as important to me as they did now.
As our conversation concluded and I stood up to leave, Dr. Oglesby extended a hand to shake mine. “I would like to thank you. I am… extremely honored and… grateful… for your honesty and forthrightness in sharing all this with me. I will be more than happy to help you in any way that I can as you identify new directions to pursue.” His words were slow and he seemed slightly taken aback, but his sincerity was clear.
The next day, I went to speak with Ms. Mire, a counselor whose job was to walk students through the withdrawal process. As I explained my reasons for withdrawing, she was a little surprised about my insight about my situation. She admitted that normally, she would be convincing reluctant students to withdraw or take a leave of absence, but was caught off guard to find that I had reached my conclusions on my own. The way she put it however, the fact that I had been able to do so of my own accord was likely a sign that I actually was taking a step in the right direction. (An idea that my parents had set forth a few days earlier as well).
The process to withdraw was not easy, though not particularly convoluted either. I was sent across campus to obtain five signatures from important figures such as the registrar and the dean of our medical school. Each time, I had to repeat my reasons for admission to convince them that I had thought things through before obtaining their signatures. The dean actually ended up being my final stop, but he was out of office for the next few hours. Instead of waiting outside his door however, I found myself walking towards the lecture hall where I knew class would still be in session.
Even as I had been collecting signatures, most of my friends and classmates were still unapprised of my situation. I had previously told only one of my friends over the phone, but now decided to tell a few of my other friends whom I had been closest to in person– they deserved that much. I knew if I did this carefully, word would eventually trickle out and spread through the class without becoming a huge bombshell which would undoubtedly result in a spammed Facebook page full of confusion and despair. The first person I chose to approach was a familiar cetacean who had become the subject of many class-wide pieces of lore– my whale-buddy Saurabh.
Actually, calling him my “buddy” is stretching it. See, Saurabh and I had a special dynamic. Saurabh wasn’t my friend… he was my comical antagonist. Any time you would put the two of us together, it would devolve into us giving each other a hard time. I would make fun of his weight by calling him “fat” in the most creative ways possible while he would attempt to retort in the most (unintentionally) hilarious ways possible. Indeed, he oftentimes brought my pokings of fun upon himself and eventually earned the nickname of “Whale” among some of my friends. To anyone else, it seemed like I was being mean to him while in reality he enjoyed the wit involved in our exchanges. I have a fond recollection of a day where I was tired in the clinic and one of my fat-jokes fell miserably flat. Saurabh responded along the lines of “yeah, that was pretty terrible… but we both know what you were trying to do so how about I just pretend to act all hurt and stuff and you can laugh about it and… yeah.” It had been a long day for us both.
At any rate, I walked into the room and tap him on his shoulder, motioning that I wanted to step outside to talk. As we stood outside the lecture hall, I tell Saurabh about how I would be leaving– honestly, he took it pretty hard. In fact, he started crying, which was rather sad for me to see because it showed how deeply our bond actually ran. He kept asking me if I was SURE– if I was ABSOLUTELY SURE, and that this wasn’t some joke to try and mess with him. Eventually though, the message sank in and Saurabh just sort of stood there, leaning over the railing of the second floor stairwell. He admitted that he felt pretty honored that I told him this in person, which of course I could only respond by telling him, “well yeah! You’ve been a huge part of my medical school experience!” …He didn’t mind me calling him fat that time.
As he gives me a hug, Dan walks by, completely oblivious, and ruins the moment. “Oh! Is this a group hug? Group hug, guys!!”
Yeah, I’m going to miss these people.
I told a few other people over the course of the day, then finally made my way to the dean’s office. As I waited in the lobby, the elevator doors opened and Saurabh trundled out. He didn’t know for sure that I would be there, but he managed to find me anyways. As he sat down next to me, he tried to make small talk but failed as he ended up continuously interrupting himself to interject that the entire situation “sucks.” He kept going on about how things will be different without me being there. “Who else will make your WTF face when Josin makes his lame jokes?”
When it was finally time for me to go, he held out his flippers for one last hug. “I’ll miss you.” I told him to save it for the weekend– it just so happened that my birthday was coming up on the weekend so we would definitely have to hang out and do something special. He told me that he would be there for sure.
Truly, it is funny how it worked out that my birthday would be the same week. It is almost as if the universe had conspired to make me feel better after facing such a cataclysmic ordeal. At any rate, my birthday not only served to provide a comforting memory amidst my departure, but also helped illuminate all of the people who comprised my support system during the times I needed it most– my family, old friends, new friends, online friends… them celebrating my birthday with me reminded me that I was not alone in the path I walked.
What ended up happening was a birthday/farewell dinner on Monday evening. During the weekend leading up to it however, some of my closer friends would take me out to dinner to spend some extra time together. I have a fond memory of me, Josin, and Mike sitting as the only ones at a restaurant sampling each others’ curries. There’s a certain… charm in sitting in an empty restaurant situated in a run-down college town late at night. While I wasn’t particularly feeling up to it, Josin admitted that Triet had asked him to convince me to visit his apartment that night because he “really wanted to see me”.
You know how ultra late nights go between good friends. When there is a painful thought that no one really wants to acknowledge, everyone sort of awkwardly sidesteps the issue at hand ,yet at the same time there is a solemn air of understanding in the room. They knew they wouldn’t be seeing me again. The five of us (along with Dan, who was Triet’s room mate) passed the time talking about miscellaneous things and even watched the movie Oblivion since someone had rented it recently. The night eventually loosened our tongues and we were able to discuss my departure through a heart-to-heart that is only possible when all parties are sleep deprived. I left for my apartment looking back on the night with a bittersweet feeling.
On Monday, we decided to celebrate my birthday at a Thai restaurant because it happens to be my favorite type of food (due to its spiciness and lack of reliance on sodium for flavor). I was a little flattered because a few of my classmates who I did not know as well also decided to show up for the occasion, but it was also a tradition of sorts whenever someone would have their birthday– everyone would show up. Saurabh gave me a plush toy of a DoTA II character (his favorite game).
But this was much more than a birthday. One evening of spending time and taking photos together was apparently not enough. The next day, I am awoken in the mid-afternoon (having slept in) to a Facebook group chat:
Cathy X: . . . Bye Bye Bubble Tea at 3pm this afternoon! Fruitealicious! . . . let’s all poke [Nightmaren] one last time. :)
Cathy X: Invite those I might have forgotten. XD
Daniel S: I’m actually getting emotional today. It hit me more that [Nightmaren] isn’t here. :-/
Cathy X: Me too! It made me so sad to learn . . . [Nightmaren] was leaving. :(
Suin Y: [One day, Nightmaren] shall be back, and even more advanced
Christine W: i think i can come. i have to get an x ray and blood drawn in the afternoon though -.-
Suin Y: DON’T LEAVE [NIGHTMAREN]. lol have fun . . . and come back
Triet L: yeah, and don’t bring back any STD or TB
Tony T: Here’s the pictures from yesterday . . . <link removed>
… It was a little convoluted, but the message was there and I was grateful for it. I quickly brushed my teeth and hopped into my car to locate Fruitealicious and was surprised to find even more people waiting for me. I had thought that only a handful of people would show up because it was in the middle of a school day and we had already spent time the day before, but I was surprised with a box full of bundt cakes with a card signed by everyone. While I was not expecting a second day of it, I felt immensely fortunate to have a group of friends who would work so hard to make my parting memories pleasant ones. They truly were having a hard time letting go.
So having taken my leave from medical school and bidding my friends farewell, one may wonder how I’m feeling. I’m feeling… well, actually. Far better than I had expected myself to feel. Sure, it stings to reflect back on the year of medical school I cast aside and the fact that I will not see my friends again, but I actually feel like things are holding together; I don’t feel lost, as if my entire ship has collapsed. It is a feeling that was pointed out to me by my friends and family. I suppose that’s the universe’s way of letting me know that I haven’t veered completely off course just yet, even if my destination is now different. Indeed– it may be early to say so right now, but I really do feel that I have made the right decision for the long haul, even if a good portion of it was based on instinct. The entire ordeal has given me a new perspective about life and what one hopes to gain from it.
As time will pass, I will eventually revisit and make public some of my experiences in medical school– there were many unique experiences, after all. Until then, may the wind be at our backs as we each navigate the roiling waters of life, allowing our journeys to be ones full of progress and adventure.