What parts of yourself do you want to bring back into your life that you may have lost during residency?
I happened upon “Training,” a poem by Dr. Sarah Wakeman, in 2011 when I was leafing through JAMA. At the time, I had been a practicing physician for four years, and had finished the adjustment that happens when one finishes training and has to decide how medical practice will fit into one’s life for the next 30-40 years.
I came to medicine hesitantly, not because I didn’t like it, but because it would mean that I would continue to follow in the footsteps of my older sister. She was the first physician in the Hanyok family, and we were all immensely proud of her. However, I had already followed her through middle school, high school, and college, and I went to college thinking I would be a research scientist. Two weeks in a research lab with mice made me rethink my career choice, and after some soul searching, I realized medicine was the place for me. My sister knew she wanted to be a doctor since elementary school – I didn’t decide until I was 20.
When I decided to apply to medical school, I was determined that I would not “lose” myself to the profession of medicine. Although medicine is a calling, I never bought into the idea that one must lose part of oneself to gain the title of Doctor.
That is why Dr. Sarah Wakeman’s poem really speaks to me:
I summited a mountain once,
sixteen thousand and then some.
My feet stepped carefully
onto steps carved by cold ax metal,
high on an icy shoulder of a Himalayan ridge.
Now those feet make rubber-soled squeaks,
Days and miles pile up
under the harsh light of long corridors,
weaving pathways from death to near life
and sometimes back again.
Training we call it.
The hours and years and minutes
trickling it seems until we look back
across a chasm carved by rushing rapids,
distant eager student selves left on the bank.
Sometimes I catch a glimpse—
that long-haired girl,
arms flung fearless and wide.
Catch up! I want to shout.
It’s far too easy to leave her behind.
Did we hold onto the pieces of ourselves that were important parts of us before medical school?
Are they buried now, but we want to find them again?
Did we decide to let them go?
There are important reasons why we have intensive training to become independent physicians. I acknowledged, during that time, that other parts of me had to temporarily languish so I could become the best physician I could be.
However, as I sat reading this poem for the first time, four years after my chief residency was complete, I was able to clearly see the long-haired girl that I used to be, and beckon parts of her back that might have been lost in the harsh light of long corridors.
Here are three questions I asked myself, I hope they help you to reflect on what parts of your identity you may want to bring back into your life:
1.) What have you gained and what have you lost during the development of your professional identity as a clinician?
2.) Is there something you want to find again?
3.) How will you encourage future generations of physicians to balance their professional identity with those other essential parts of who they are?