A Breath of Sky: Memoir of a Medical Student
A Breath of Sky
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.