When we work in competitive fields such as medicine and public health, sometimes we can forget to apply the principles we learn to ourselves. We invest our lives caring for others, promoting health, understanding pathologic processes of diseases. With public health those principles are taken a step further, and applied to large populations rather than individual patients. We can implement public policies, do medical procedures, prescribe medications, and recite guidelines in order to prevent certain diseases. Yet, there are times that in order to achieve those tasks, we ignore our well-being. Given the academic challenge that a career in medicine and public health is, we can develop unhealthy behaviors that can seem to be justified at first, but at the end will have negative consequences in both physical and mental health. Realizing that we are persons first and students second is an important step in order to be a successful graduate student in public health and preventive medicine resident. With such realization, we must learn how to incorporate our personal life in our schedules, in order to find a balance between both.
When I finished medical school in 2010, I thought that was the end of my life as a student. Those four years spent in medical school were intense. The amount of material I had to master for each block of exams was overwhelming, and the competition was overwhelming. At first I underestimated the challenge. I believed that my excellent performance as an undergraduate student would translate into succeeding through medical school without making sacrifices in my personal life. I was wrong. The first block of exams were a slap on my face that left me a scar up until this day. Due to my determination to finishing in 4 years, I dedicated all my time to school. I was unable to find a balance between my personal life and my academic life. I stopped exercising, did not pursue interests outside school, and as a consequence I became unhappy. My stress level was at a point that it bothered some of my classmates. They stopped inviting me to study groups due to my obsession with time. I became nervous, anxious, irritated and rude anytime we started discussing topics outside the subjects we were studying. Back then I did not see any other way of going through school. As time passed I realized that I needed to seek professional help in order to deal with my anxiety and unhappiness, and it helped. At the end I was able to finish in 4 years, but in an inefficient way. I gained weight, and was burned out. I had allowed stress to overcome my life, and became a slave to my studies.
After medical school I started an internal medicine residency. During my internship in internal medicine I realized that I wanted to shift my career away from solely clinical practice. I decided I wanted to be able to reach populations, and not focus in individual patient care. I discovered the field of preventive medicine during that time, and it became clear that it was the best fit for me. I decided to resign from internal medicine in part due to my new interests, but also due to the fact that I was burnt out from my experience in medical school.
Now I have the privilege of being in a Preventive Medicine Residency, and the program includes finishing a master’s degree in public health, which means going back to school. Now I cannot allow myself to repeat the same approach to school as I did in medical school. At this point I have two academic roles to fulfill, that of a medical resident and the one as a graduate student in public health. Looking back at what I did 10 years ago when I started medical school, I can see what not to repeat. I need to find a balance between my personal life and my academic/professional life. My health will not tolerate the same behavior I had during medical school. On top of the academic/professional challenges I also have to count other factors that can affect my performance, such as adapting to a new city, dealing with winter(I am from Puerto Rico, and did my internship in Tampa, Florida), living alone, away from family.
Perhaps the best step in order to succeed as a graduate student, is realizing that in the same way that I need to study for classes, I also need to live my personal life. I am a person first. I am lucky to be given the opportunity to move forward in my career, and I must be effective with my time in order to succeed. I have learned that my own health is more important than my career. In order to perform as a student, I must first take care of myself physically and mentally. Therefore I need to establish an exercise routine into my schedule with the same priority I have to schedule time to study and finish my assignments. It is also important to be able to recognize when we need help. Therefore establishing care with professional counselors, if needed becomes a priority in order to function and succeed as a student. Besides our own health, we must be able to keep pursuing our interests outside school such as hobbies. It serves as a relaxation technique and it can be a means to channel our frustrations with a productive activity. We also need to fit in our social or family life into our schedules. Not only will family and friends will help you to distract your mid from work, but they can also be sources of support and we must not ignore them.
In order to be able to find a balance between school and our personal life we need to be disciplined and organized. Despite knowing our need to fulfill our personal life, we need to realize that sacrifices need to be done. Perhaps I will not be able to spend all the time we want socializing, or enjoying all the musical performances I wish I could go to. I need to realize that not all weekends will be for my enjoyment. Once we realize those sacrifices, organizing our schedule in order to include personal activities should become easier.
Looking back 10 years ago, I did not have the emotional maturity I have now. I was unable to see the importance of finding a balance between studying and being a person. I am still dealing with consequences of my behavior back then, especially with weight gain. I was able to finish medical school, however I was burnt out by the time I reached residency, and as a consequence I was unable to finish internal medicine. Now I am lucky to be able to start a new step on my career. From the mistakes I did while in medical school, I should be able to overcome the challenges of having a dual role as student and person by not repeating those mistakes.
By: Diego A. Tamez, MD