The ‘my premed journey’ series is going to be a series where I share my journey to medical school – the ups and downs. I wish I had started blogging about this journey earlier because I could’ve to share how I got here. Many of you who follow this blog or my Instagram are still in that premed leg of the journey and I want you to know that no one ends up here without many bumps in the road. I hope that you may find inspiration here and that it serves as a reminder that it’s all going to be okay.
In my previous post, I talked about how I chose which college to attend after high school. Next, I’ll be talking about how I decided I wanted to pursue the premed route and eventually apply to medical school. While I knew that I found science moderately interesting, I knew I needed to expose myself to clinical settings to really understand medicine, what it was all about and whether that was what I wanted to spend my life doing.
Also, full disclosure – I come from a family of people in medicine. My father is a very well respected doctor in our community and he’s always encouraged me to follow in his footsteps. But when you’re seventeen years old, you’re aching for independence and trying to find your own path. So while I was interested in medicine, I didn’t want to use my dad’s connections in the community to ‘get ahead’ – I wanted to so this on my own. So when I got to college, I decided to seek out opportunities on my own and that’s exactly what I did. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t been so childish and actually sought the advice of someone who really does only want what’s best for me. But I wouldn’t change anything for the world because every decision I’ve made thus far has gotten me to where I am today.
The summer before starting college, I volunteered in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital – the same ICU where my grandmother’s life ended a few years earlier. It was difficult to return to that space but it also was such a healing experience to be on the other side of the experience: doing what I could to ease the suffering of those in the ICU and their loved ones. As a volunteer I didn’t have much contact with patients but I did get to spend a lot of time with the nurses and support staff – the same ones who had helped care for my grandmother. From them I learned how difficult it was to be in this field, how often we had to face mortality and long hours with very little (objectively) to show for in return. Many of the nurses tried to convince me to stay away from the premed track in college because they understood how difficult of a field this truly is. (Also, keep in mind that many people will have an opinion about what you want to do with your life, including other jaded physicians who will tell you to do ‘anything but this.’ Listen to what they have to say but also realize that this is your life and your path. You need to make your own decisions).
While I did get some clinical experience during my summer volunteering in the ICU, I knew I needed more exposure to really be able to decide if medicine was for me. During my first year in undergrad I joined a student organization that was aiming to start a free clinic in the underserved areas of Orange County (no, that’s not an oxymoron). I remember when I got the call that I had been accepted to the organization as an intern, I was ecstatic. It felt like I was finally putting on my ‘big girl pants’ and getting a chance at being who I wanted to be. Helping start something from the ground up was simultaneously exciting and frustrating. For every opportunity to start your own project and think out side the box, there were also many, many roadblocks that made me question why it was so difficult to help people. But being surrounded by those people who were passionate about providing health care to underserved communities really helped me realize there was a place for me in this world of medicine. It made me want to work harder in my classes and it made me more curious. I realized that while I wanted to have patient contact, I was also interested in research as a means to bring change to larger populations at a time.
By a stroke of luck, one of the most competitive clinical research programs in the emergency department of the university’s hospital was having a ‘late cycle’ to add a couple more people to their team. A good friend of mine was already in the program and told me about this opportunity so I obviously jumped at the chance to apply. I was somewhat hesitant and felt undeserving because I had recently gotten rejected (for the second time) by a volunteering program at a hospital near my college campus. Several of my peers had easily gotten into this program but I kept getting rejected repeatedly. I really want to emphasize this part of my journey to medical school to help you all realize that not everything goes according to plan. In fact, most things don’t. And rejection really is a part of this process. I’m glad that it happened because I really learned from it. I learned to reflect on my status as an applicant and on my interview skills. I also learned how important it is to work towards opportunities you are actually interested in, not just what you think would look good on an application. Had I gotten into this volunteering program, I probably would not have applied to this clinical research program that truly changed my life. It’s where I really figured out who I wanted to be when I ‘grew up.’ It’s where I met some of the most extraordinary people I’ll ever know, including my husband. It’s where I fell in love with medicine and public health research and academia.
In the ED, I saw real medicine. I saw how different specialties worked together. I saw the interactions between physicians and patients. I saw death. I saw the effects of barriers to healthcare that forced patients to use the ED for primary care. I touched a heart and watched lungs expand in the chest. I spent my shifts talking to patients, enrolling them into our studies. I had a few projects where I served as coordinator and wrote papers, presented posters and presentations. I worked directly with the residents and attendings in the department on these projects and learned from their stories and journeys on how they got to where they are. I saw women in medicine excelling in their field, balancing work and family. I had so many conversations with med students, residents, fellows, attendings and realized that they’re just people. They made jokes and complained about things and were still always learning. And being around them, I realized that I wanted to be there too. It motivated me to work harder to get to where I am today.
I was very blessed in my premed clinical experiences. I spent four years surrounded by some of the most resilient and creative students who, after five grueling years of dealing with finances and other nonsense, started a free clinic to serve an extremely underserved population. I spent three years in the emergency department seeing medicine in all its glory and learning from the best minds in the hospital.
Outside of the classroom, I committed myself to these two causes because that is what I was passionate about. Through my experiences with both, I knew that medicine was it. This was my calling. And I knew for sure because the thought of the long road ahead of me didn’t strike fear or anxiety but rather excitement and wonder.
So to those of you still trying to decide whether or not medicine is for you, immerse yourself in clinical settings. Talk to those who came before you and ultimately chose this path – or didn’t! Think about what you might do instead if you decide against this and if you can think of anything else you’d love more or just as much as being a physician, try that first. In all the moments of anxiety and frustration about exams, guilt about missing important events with my family and friends and sheer exhaustion, the one thing that always kept me going was that I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I could not imagine being happy any other way. Because, trust me, if I could’ve, I would’ve tried that before jumping on this road. Ask yourself if this is the life you want to live and if you’re willing to make the sacrifices it takes to get there.
And please, please remember that there is no shame in deciding that being a physician is not what you want to do with your life. I have come across so many people in my limited time in clinical settings who would have been so much happier if they had been able to admit that to themselves. Life is already hard enough – don’t make it harder by forcing yourself to do something that you think you’re supposed to do for your parents or whoever else. You have to do this for yourself, for no other reason than because you love it and you can’t imagine your life any other way.
If you’ve been on this road for what feels like forever, trying to get one foot into the door – if you know that this is your calling, you will get here. I truly believe that. I know that you do not have to be inherently smart or have the right connections or whatever else to make it here. There is so much need all around the world for truly extraordinary people who work from the heart – don’t give up. Please. There are people out there who need you, who are waiting for you to get your chance so you can give them theirs.
This series is meant to help premed students get an idea of how to navigate their path to medical school. Obviously, this is just my own personal story but I’ll try to include other paths/opinions throughout as well. If you have any specific topics that you’d like to see addressed in this series, please leave a comment! I can’t promise that I’ll get to everything but I’ll definitely try.