Produced by allheart, the Real Caregivers Project is an original interview series that delves into the heart of the healthcare community – the real-life people who dedicate their lives to saving others.
"The best medical students I have known are resilient. They endure the challenges of medical school, the setbacks, the failures, and they remain determined to succeed. They face their weaknesses and do all that they can, reach out to peers, reach out to us, and they do not give up. It is not about their smarts; it is about their resilience."
This conversation took place nearly a year ago in the midst of interview season. At the time, I thought of my circumstances and wondered if that made me resilient. There I was undergoing this process for a second time because I was determined to get accepted. I could see the physician I was building myself to be and I just needed to get over this huge hurdle to get closer and closer to that goal.
Surely, that was resilience. Surely, that was what she meant.
I concluded my first semester of medical school exactly one week from today, and my mind is just now settling and quieting enough that I am able to reflect on what the last four months have been like as well as notice the growth I have made.
During my first week of classes, I felt like I was falling, my arms flailing, my mind desperate to cling to anything that had worked for me before.
The only problem? It didn't work this time around.
The study techniques I was so comfortable with needed to be readjusted. I didn't have my comfortable and familiar support system around me (although they were still close). School was new. Everyone was new. Everything was new. I reached for advice from every direction: upperclassmen, fellow classmates, medical students in the Instagram medical community, my parents, my mentor, everyone I could think of.
I was falling.
At the time, I was hoping I would notice my strength. At some point.
The first six chapters of this series highlighted some of these difficulties in noticing my strength, difficulties that many of my peers have confessed they share as well.
The interesting thing is though I am only noticing this strength now. And that is because there have been many moments when I've felt weak. It is only now that I am truly understanding that these weaknesses are my strengths and/or will develop into my strengths.
And the best part?
It is perfectly okay if these characteristics are weaknesses for someone else and not strengths. That does not mean they have to be signs of your weakness.
Allow me to explain with examples.
The first day of Anatomy lab, I made a cut. I cut into our body donor's arm, into the depths of their skin. I did not know them, but I, like the rest of my classmates, joined in cutting into the body's of 36 people respectfully. Our body donor's face was covered, but I could see the outline of their facial features through the towel.
Maybe someone had held these hands tenderly. Perhaps they held their children with these arms.
Maybe, like us, they once had the strength to carry themselves despite their fears.
While many others were thrilled with the possibilities of what landscapes we would discover as a result of these people's gracious donations of their own bodies, I was dwelling on the fact that at some point, this person used to laugh until tears rolled down their cheeks. I wondered how much they smiled, if at all, during their last days. Were they worried about anyone they were leaving behind?
Did we think of them enough to deserve this privilege, to see into them so deeply in a way that no one else has?
A few minutes later, after I peeled more of her layers and realized I was seeing more of her without learning more about her, I handed the scalpel to another member of my group.
Compartmentalize, Manar. Separate your emotions from the studying.
I get it; it's not our place to learn more about them at this point. We should only be gracious and learn as much as possible because "this opportunity will not come again."
The way I saw it, we were here to develop into experts in patient-care, and our first patient did not breathe, see, or hear anymore. However, this was our first patient. This was the first person who's body we were given responsibility of.
For weeks, I felt insecure about this. I was uncomfortable that that first cut had disturbed me so much while others were compartmentalizing, focusing on the learning more. I know that others were irked by the idea of it, but the difference was some students were able to focus on the task at hand rather than focus on other things.
I would be faced with this internal war between my emotions and my need to learn, to be, to grow multiple times in the semester. It would happen when I checked the news. It would happen when I sensed an urgency to write, when the lines would flow and I would fight between listening to another lecture or stop to write a few lines, write another blog, write a single word. I would face this when the studying just felt intense, when the weight of the person I was compelling myself to grow into would become too heavy.
If you know why you're here, it should be easy to focus.
The truth is, I knew why I was here so deeply that that dragged me out of focus. Toward the end of the semester, one of our professors who taught us a unit for one week, invited one of his patients with one of the conditions he discussed in each lecture to join us at the end of the hour to describe to us their life with their condition.
At the end of our first lecture with him, when he told us about this surprise and invited his first patient, tears welled in my eyes and my hands began to shake lightly. I was giddy and completely overwhelmed.
We will learn the medical jargon and medication regimens for each condition. We will learn about symptoms. But this was the perfect opportunity to hear about how these conditions affected their home life, their marriage, their mental health.
All I wanted to ask each patient was, "how are you, really? How hard is this? What can I do, who can I be, to make you feel better?"
Yet, I spent this first semester with that internal voice telling my, Compartmentalize, Manar.
If you know why you're here....
Now that the semester is over, I am thinking back to that conversation in one of my interviews last year. The dean of admissions was interviewing me alongside one of the professors.
"What questions do you have for us?" She asked me, looking at her colleague.
I looked down at the hem of my shirt and straightened it. Did she wonder what it took students to come and sit in this seat? How much work and energy? Not physical, I mean mental.
Did she know how often I had looked at my hijab as I wrapped it before every interview and wondered if it would ever be a barrier between myself and someone else?
Did she know how terribly I wanted to be content? Did she know how hard I worked to prove that the parts of myself that may be seen as weaknesses are actually strengths, how hard I tried to compel myself and others believe that?
I interlaced my fingers together and breathed a sigh of relief, pushed my shoulders back and listened by eyes to look at them. They both had smiles on their faces, inviting my questions. But I only had one.
"After seeing so many medical students go through this education, what is a skill that the best of them have?"
The dean smiled widely and looked at the professor next to her. He nodded his head at her, and she said,
"Resilience. The best medical students I have known are resilient... It is not about their smarts; it is about their resilience."
At the time, I truly thought I understood what she meant. It is only now that I have realized that this resilience is much larger than reapplying for medical school or studying for hours. It is an emotional characteristic as much as a physical one.
It is about noticing who you are, and who you can become, and being completely comfortable with that image being different than what others expect it to be. It is about defining your version of "physician" and being resilient in making sure it happens, your way.
"Notice that somewhere there are people waiting for you to learn, waiting for your growth, waiting for your care."