by Mitch Obey
This entry begins with graduation just a few weeks away, and I cannot help but find myself reflecting upon the journey. The inaugural day of medical school orientation was nearly four years ago now, and it would be entirely cliché to say it feels like it was just yesterday. But the truth is that it honestly feels like a lifetime ago. And yet I still remember the finest details of that day, down to the very breakfast I ate and the suit I wore. Anxiously I approached the old limestone steps, marking the entrance of the Mayo School of Medicine’s Great Hall. There I stumbled upon two other students, my classmates-to-be, who were taking pictures and making memories of that special day. We introduced ourselves, then took a deep breath, and together pushed open the doors to the next four years.
For me, medical school was an accident, something I didn’t plan on or even dream of. I grew up in a family with no ties to medicine, in a community with one stoplight, and with my summers spent working on local farms. My dream was to attend culinary school and become a pastry chef. Food was fascinating, and that interest was cultivated by watching shows such as “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” on the Food Network. Cooking was the ultimate release from reality, allowing for creativity, passion, and focus. Often serving as a foundation among cultures, it has the ability to bring together families, friends, religions, and enemies. I wanted to become a part of that legacy, and dedicate my life to its preservation, but then one day nine years ago my dream was gone.
As a senior in high school I was offered to shadow an orthopedic surgeon, and to be quite honest I didn’t even know what one was back then. Medical students often come from families of physicians, which offers them years of exposure to the medical profession. In fact, many probably dressed up as doctors for Halloween. The rest of us come from families with no doctors, no nurses, or anything at all related to healthcare. However, where you come from or where you’ve been doesn’t determine your fate. I’m a prime example, and that’s why I believe medicine is so special. You can be big or small, short or tall, male or female, and young or old. What it takes to become a great physician isn’t on the outside, it comes from within. At that very moment nine years ago when I slipped those scrubs on and wandered my way into the operating room, my passion changed forever.
Each year medical schools are filled with incoming students who are considered “Type A” and strive for perfection. Most have very little personal experience with failure, which is where the danger lies. Medical school not only challenges you academically, but also emotionally, physically, and mentally. You will be faced with some of the most stressful and challenging times in your life, and how you respond determines success. So then it must seem very strange that students with such qualities would voluntarily subject themselves to the grueling journey of becoming a physician where “perfection” truly does not exist. Perhaps it’s because we’re crazy and enjoy a good challenge, or maybe it’s because we want to try and change the world.
Each year there are stories about the “dangers” of medical school in the news. How an estimated 300 to 400 physicians die each year from suicide. That approximately 6% of medical students fail or drop out of medical school, 11.1% suffer from suicidal ideation, 27.2% from depression, and 32.4% from alcohol abuse/dependence. What about the financial burden? How about an upwards of $300,000 in debt that only grows in interest as it is slowly paid off. I guarantee most students don’t have the slightest idea of these risks before beginning medical school; I know I didn’t. Do medical school applications need to be issued a Black Box Warning, or Surgeon General’s Warning, or perhaps just a signed informed consent? No, that would be wildly outlandish, and quite frankly unnecessary. But the point here is that this profession is not for the faint of heart. It has dangers, and possesses the ability to put you in the crosshairs of your patients, colleagues, and the law.
As I find myself in the shadow of graduation I cannot help but reflect on the past four years. The path to graduation will be very different for each of us, but the final goal will forever remain the same. To become a physician means earning one of the highest privileges in our society, and as we heal our patients we must do so with compassion and empathy. Physicians are in a business unlike any other, one that requires a lifelong commitment to dealing with real human beings. Patients will seek refuge, and place their greatest trust in your hands at a point in life when they are most vulnerable. It truly is an amazing opportunity, and we can only hope that graduates around the nation will be ready to accept that responsibility.
This past week a friend asked if I thought I would do it all over again, and I took a minute before answering. In retrospect, getting into medical school felt like an act of God. The grades, volunteering, leadership, shadowing, and everything else it took to spark the attention of admissions committees is quite remarkable. I often think about the thousands of students who couldn’t quite get into medical school. Maybe it was because of one bad grade, an MCAT score below the 90th percentile, or perhaps they were simply lost in the shuffle. Even those that made it will at times suffer from “Imposter Syndrome,” and wonder how and if they are actually supposed to be here. Adding insult to injury, each year students around the nation too often lose sight of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and post about how they regret ever going to medical school. I urge them to reconsider. Take a second, step back, and remember why you came here.
You know ,I often wonder which experience I will remember most. Maybe it will be the first newborn I delivered, the first surgery I scrubbed in on, the first dying patient’s hand I held as they passed away, or the patient who died beneath my arms in the CT scanner as I performed CPR. It’s a tough question to answer, but perhaps it doesn’t need an answer. Time will tell which memories we hold onto, and those that will slowly fade away.
Before I sign off, I’ll leave you with this final thought. In a few short weeks I’ll be proudly standing beside the other forty-three students in my class on graduation day. They are without question the most spectacular and amazing people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. As we part ways for residency, I will always remember how we survived this journey together. We are the future of medicine, and for that very reason I believe we are the lucky ones.
Mitch Obey is part of Mayo Clinic School of Medicine's Class of 2017. He grew up in Chatfield, Minnesota just twenty miles south of Rochester and attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa for undergraduate studies in biology and also to play baseball for the Norse. Mitch is very passionate about the culinary arts and pastry, bow hunting, and personal health and fitness. He matched into Orthopaedic Surgery residency at Barnes-Jewish/Washington University/St. Louis Children's Hospital Consortium.