Balance, Pedal, Breathe
A journey through medical school
Balance, Pedal, Breathe: A journey through medical school
When I received my medical school acceptance letter, I was a 22-year-old waitress living in a small town in the wilderness of the Eastern Sierra. Crisply idealistic, I felt sure that being a doctor was my destiny. Nothing else could have driven me to leave those glorious mountains to live in a city.
Medical school didn’t begin well. With buildings blocking my view of the sky, I couldn’t find my way home from class. I burst into tears in anatomy lab. I failed my first exam. I soon had to ask myself whether medicine was really my calling. What if everything I thought I knew about myself was wrong?
Simultaneously aware of the importance and difficulty of nurturing my humanness, I looked to my body to give me answers. Mountain biking coaxed me into a rhythm of studying and persevering when I thought I couldn’t anymore. I found strength in the steadiness of my legs as I hiked paths in Golden Gate park. Rock climbing reminded me I was not new to problem-solving. These mini-escapes propelled me toward a burgeoning confidence that I might just get by — even as I realized that surviving would not be enough. I wanted to retain enough humanity to earn the role of healer as well.
In my clinical years, I brought a new perspective and approach to each medical specialty. In pediatrics, I played foreign exchange student, practicing new vocabulary and customs as I shepherded my patient through a mystery illness. I learned that empathy could be like quicksand, when my psychiatry patient changed his story each week. I felt the loneliness of marrying myself to a profession instead of another person while delivering babies in obstetrics. And when I required emergency surgery, I discovered that the boundary between patient and doctor was entirely, even dangerously, permeable. Mortality affects each of us.
At the nadir of my medical education, I found myself changing wound dressings on the skin abscesses of drug-addicted patients, yelled at by superiors and patients alike. Without recognizing the peril, I checked out emotionally, too easily becoming the impatient, callous doctor I had vowed never to be.
Just when I was standing on the cusp of walking away from medicine, I was assigned to interview a lonely octogenarian in her home. I arrived feeling ill-at-ease outside the hospital, and entirely unsure what to say. I left burning with inspiration, realizing that people’s stories connect us to one another — and that they are too easily lost. I promised that day to reclaim the myriad moments of wonder, dismay, strain, joy, and desperation that had led me to this point.
With over a year of medical school still ahead of me, I applied to start a MFA program in creative writing. By stepping off the path to take a deep breath, I reconnected with the inspiration to become a healer. I made peace with the trials. I would become a doctor after all, so long as I remained a rock climber, skier, mountain biker, traveler, and most importantly, a keen observer of the interconnectedness of life experiences.
FINALIST for the IAN Book of the Year Awards in "Memoir" and "General Non-Fiction" (2022).
SECOND PLACE BookFest Award Winner for Professional Memoir (Fall 2023).
“In this brave and vulnerable journey through the wonderland of medical school, Dr. Claire Unis questions everything—including her motivation, purpose, ability, and her own heart. Balance, Pedal, Breathe allows readers to shadow Unis as she strives to make a difference, bikes mountains, circles the dance floor, and clicks into her climbing harness, and all of these experiences are seen through the emotionally dizzying labyrinth of an imperfect medical system.
Unis draws her readers in with compelling, sometimes heartsick, always compassionate stories, 'one at a time like feeding quarters to a slot machine'.”
--Patricia Caspers, author of Some Flawed Magic
"What a beautiful memoir Dr. Claire Unis has written! Balance Pedal Breathe reveals with observational acuity how 'the familiar can look ominous', how 'mysteries wrapped in sinew' and 'questions not yet fully formed' unsettle the idealistic medical student in her 'gradual process of becoming someone else'.
This book shares a rare glimpse into a paradox of pursuing knowledge that threatens to undercut intuition’s foundation, the fear that achieving a life goal of becoming a doctor will demystify the very reverence of humanness that inspired that goal."
–Karen Terrey, author of Bite and Blood