Author: Matthew Wright

More than Medicine

More than Medicine

  • Author: Matthew Wright

More than Medicine

Medicine is NOT the most important thing.

There, I said it. You see, I struggled a bit with finding the right way to begin this entry, and I came to the realization that sugarcoating things is not going to make things easier. If you’ve pursued medicine for any length of time, you, like I have believed a terrible lie: that medicine is the most important thing. And in some ways, that lie has been useful- it offers motivation in troubled times, it calls us to higher ethical standards, and it provides justification for the many sacrifices we’ve made in pursuing careers (I refuse to use the word lives) as physicians.

I firmly believe that while our curricula venerate the noble calling of medicine- to which there is assuredly some truth, I’m not denying that what we do is noble and good-we as a medical community have bought into this lie wholesale, causing more damage than we may notice at first approximation.

Don’t mistake me, medicine requires nothing less than our best. I’m not saying don’t be driven, don’t work hard. I’m saying that there is more to life than that MD or DO behind your name.

You see, we’ve become so enchanted with the idea that medicine is some illustrious calling that we’ve wrapped our entire identities around this one- important, but singular- aspect of our lives.

It’s no wonder why this happens really; pursuing medicine is time-consuming, draining, and absolutely worth it. What’s more, medicine’s all-encompassing nature has made at least me (and probably you), feel like all you are is a pre-med/medical student/physician. This, my friends, is a dangerous act, you are more than medicine, regardless of how you feel about it.

Here’s a litmus test…

When people ask you “What do you do?”, is your first response to mention your life as a pre-med/med student/physician? I am most assuredly guilty of this: I readily share my status as a medical student when asked that question, and it seems to be the only thing people want to discuss when they find out. But you, me, we are more than just a career choice, even as we spend most of our waking hours studying. We are sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, parents, coaches, bakers, runners, board-game players, lovers, friends. And yet, somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that our identities are so much more than what we do from Monday-Friday (and sometimes on weekends). 

Somehow, the consuming fire that is medicine has caused us to rearrange our priorities so that items 1-10 are all medicine in one form or another. And then when we go home and try to relate to our friends who aren’t in medicine, things are jumbled, stilted, tangled. We’re disinterested oftentimes, and that’s not the fault of our friends-it’s ours for somewhere losing our humanity. Indeed, empirical data suggests that medical students rapidly decline in their ability to experience and express empathy the farther they go along in school-I firmly believe this is because we’ve forgotten that we are in- fact humans first, and physicians second. For the sake of both you and your patients-reclaim your humanity. Realize that medicine is not most important- instead, it’s merely a component of the wonderful, complex, intricate you.

But how we go about doing that is easier said than done- especially when medicine does take up so much of our lives. I’m sorry to say there aren’t any easy roadmaps to regaining your humanity. What I can share are the steps I’ve taken to continue to remind myself that medicine is a priority, not the priority, of my life. For now, I want to leave you with three actionable items that I believe can help us reclaim some of our humanity from the beast known as medicine.

1. Make a list of Priorities

I started this reclamation process by writing out a list of what I think my priorities should be- the 5-10 things that make me, me. For my part, the list looked something like this: Faith, Relationships with Family, Medicine, Relationships with Friends, and self-improvement. Your list probably doesn’t look like mine, nor should it- be specific, be general. The point of the exercise is to carefully ponder where medicine falls, and to allocate your energies (not necessarily your time) accordingly. Carefully consider why each of those things matter, and then put the list you wrote (and yes, write it out) somewhere you will see it regularly as a daily reminder to pursue what matters.

2. Re-frame the “What do you do?” Question

I challenge you, when asked this question, to re-frame it as a question of “What are you passionate about?” Now when people ask me this question, I say, I’m passionate about improving children’s lives. Even that simple shift of focus drastically changed me from thinking of medicine as my sole identity to one where medicine is part of one large passion project. It’ll challenge you to live a life more fully engaged with the world outside of medicine.

3. (Re)Connect with people outside of Medicine

Look, 99.99% of the people on the planet are not physicians, and yet 99.99% of the world will interact with physicians in some way (Source: I made up those stats). As a result of the insular nature of medical school, there will be a strong temptation to ignore the perspectives of non-medical people, or to measure their values as less in some way (more on pride in medicine later). It is to our detriment to ignore those voices. Instead, get involved in your community- even if it’s studying at the local coffee shop or public library instead of school. Listen to people, interact with them. By experiencing the lives of those not intimately involved in medicine, you’ll begin to see how others live out a multi-faceted existence- that they are more than their jobs, more than their relationships, more than their hobbies: they, like you, are the sum of all those parts.

With any luck, such a mentality will rub off on you, and help you to remember that you are more than medicine.

Winning the War Against Anxiety

Winning the War Against Anxiety

  • Author: Matthew Wright

Winning the War Against Anxiety

Hey everyone-it’s been a spell. I’m glad to be writing again.

Guys-I have anxiety. No, I don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for GAD or Panic Disorder. That said, my default wiring is anxiety. I worry about nearly everything- school, dating (I’m single ladies…), weekend plans, friendships, finances, research, if I remembered to flush. You know, normal stuff. Most of all, I worry about the beautiful, big picture, future-stuff like boards and residency and who I am as a person. I am exceedingly future focused and self-conscious, a winning combination, I know. Chances are, if you’re in medicine, you probably relate.

And you know what?

Anxiety Sucks.

A lot.

The ways anxiety sucks are impossible to number, but if I picked three reasons it would be these: Anxiety sucks because anxiety is de-motivating, it robs today of its joy, and it’s just a tiny bit addictive. You know, like when you watch Human Centipede and you want to stop, but you just can’t. (Editor’s Note: DO NOT WATCH HUMAN CENTIPEDE).

Right now, I just want to talk about how constricting, how suffocating, how demoralizing anxiety can be. Story time- I’ve been MIA from life for the past 3 as I’ve been wading through a labyrinthine haze of UWorld and First Aid. I had an original Step 1 date set for early June. As the day drew closer, I started getting anxious. I was sleeping 4 hours a night, vomiting before practice tests. My bowels were a mess. I don’t say this to garner sympathy, but to make it clear where I was at.

And you know what I did instead of buckling down? I psyched myself out- I told myself I couldn’t do this- that I wasn’t improving (untrue), and that I should be ashamed for not working harder (maybe a little true). I felt it didn’t matter if I studied or not, so I started slacking- waking up later, studying fewer hours, less intensely. If that’s you, I want you to simply know- you can do it. Heck, if you’ve accomplished anything in your life, you know that you succeeded in part because you told yourself you could succeed. When you’re anxious, nothing seems worth it, your mind races, and what was once false starts becoming real. Anxiety inhibits us from reaching our full potential.

But you knew that.

What you not might know is the cure – humility. Working harder doesn’t work. Talking yourself out of it doesn’t work. Humbly admitting that in your present state, you can’t do it- that works. You, being as anxious as you are, cannot and will not succeed. You have to accept reality. To me, that’s what humility is- seeing yourself precisely as you are-no better, no worse. I had to realize that yeah, I do suck right now. It’s a really hard thing to realize- that you’re broken and need help.

Everyone I’ve ever seen get through their anxiety, they had to accept the world as it was at that moment, to admit they needed a hand. It is never wrong to ask for help. To ask for help is, believe it or not, a sign of strength and courage. And I’m sorry, I wish I could give you a roadmap to humility, but I can’t. Maybe you’ll just break down in tears to your dad sitting in your sweaty Pontiac Vibe with broken a/c in the parking lot of a Panera. No? Just me? Okay, that’s cool.

Honestly, not the best place for a mental-breakdown- there was a Kopps Frozen Custard just across the street.

There’s a second step to winning this war- build an army. I mean a real team- people who may not entirely understand what you’re going through, but love you unconditionally. Joel, my roommate who told me how it was. Josh, my best friend who happened to be coming up to Wisconsin the weekend after I had my mini-meltdown. The scores of friends who lent me support on test day. The crew at MotivateMD who gave me the time off I needed to take care of myself. Dr. Tsao who showed me so much kindness and helped me switch my schedule around. And of course my amazing family, who let me be normal, who told me that I was loved no matter what, who told me I am valuable simply because I exist. Yeah, it’s a platitude. But sometimes we need to believe in the stupid little banal platitudes of life.

Because they’re true.

And you know what? Things got better. I moved my test date, took extra time to study, moved back home for a month. Things got better. Suddenly, material that didn’t make any sense was going in. I believed I could succeed, I wasn’t sick, I was sleeping again. When test day rolled around, I felt like I might actually pass, or even reach my target.

You can feel that way too-all it takes is a little humility.

I’m not saying anxiety is easy to deal with. I’ll probably always struggle with it. But now I know how to. Heck, my anxiety is mild by most standards. I know that. I’m not so resilient, I don’t have grit. Sorry if I sound like a pushover today. Even so, if you struggle with anxiety, I hope that my story has gone some way towards helping you win the war.

Be kind to yourself. Love others.

Gap-Year Part 2:  Why Taking A Gap-Year Will Make You A Better Doctor…

Gap-Year Part 2: Why Taking A Gap-Year Will Make You A Better Doctor…

  • Author: Matthew Wright

Gap-Year Part 2: Why Taking A Gap-Year Will Make You A Better Doctor…

This is it, Gap-year, the sequel. This is the Empire Strikes Back of our series on the awesome value of Gap Years. I’m gonna be honest though, I’m more of a Jedi guy myself (Ewok haters back off), but Empire is obviously the better movie, so I suppose this essay has a lot of hype to live up to.

In my last post, I shared just a brief summary of why I believe that taking a Gap year is the best decision you can make. Chances are, if you missed that last post, this one will seem like it’s coming from nowhere. Go read that one, and then come back. Go ahead, I’ll wait 😉

You’re back, okay good, I was getting worried for a minute. Sorry, that’s the overwhelming social anxiety talking. Anyway, this week, I’m gonna dig into the value of taking a gap year when it comes to your emotional health and your relationships. Let’s jump in, shall we?

Emotion

Think of this as a catch-all: emotional health, mental health, spiritual health. Let me be clear before we start: pre-meds are incredibly strong people. It takes more grit than many pre-meds realize to get through the rigorous challenges of preparing for medical school. Undergrad takes a lot more out of pre-meds than we realize. If you’re like me, while you enjoyed undergrad, you probably weren’t exactly having the time of your life in the same way some of your peers seemed to be.

Undergrad was a lot of work, and your mental health, your identity probably suffered.

Trying to figure out who you are, your future, your passions and interests, and excelling academically. It’s exhausting. The problem is, while we pre-meds are really good at a lot of things, we suck at two things: taking it easy, and humility. Stress and emotional anxiety become the “new norm”, and being the highly adaptive samurai-wizard-geniuses we are, it’s bizzare and strange to slow down. Use gap years to slow down, to recoup, to stop lying to ourselves. That’s where the humility-specifically about our own limits and weaknesses comes in. Take a gap year to take honest stock of your mental well-being, because I can assure you, you will not have the luxury of time while in medical school. I admit it, I was way more tired after finish undergrad than I allowed myself to believe. I’m not proud of it.

I’m not tired- I’m Superman darn it! I should be able to handle this!

Admit it, you feel a little bit like this too. It’s okay, you’ve probably earned that feeling in many regards. You just came off one of the most rigorous undergraduate careers possible, and you won. But the truth is, you’re probably weaker than you realize. You’ve been fighting for so long, it just seems normal.  Learn to relax, to become sane again. A gap year affords you opportunity to rediscover what real emotional stability, what low-stress feels like (and yes, applying to medical school is stressful in its own right, but we’re talking relative stresses). Do yourself a favor- return to your place of rest, your Batcave. Regain your sense of well-being, remember what it feels like to not be stressed. Get some mental health hit points back, because you’ll need them for the herculean task ahead.

Relationships

Every relationship I know-be it friendly or romantic- has suffered at least in some part while in medical school. That isn’t to say that if you don’t take a year off your person, your people will suddenly and spontaneously combust out of your life. But medicine has a way of chipping at the cracks in the relationship, causing rust and rot, festers where you thought you were strong. So be aware, and plan accordingly. I’ve seen more than my fair share of failed relationships in medical school.

There is no way to ignore that medicine asks a lot not just of you, but your people too. You need to realize that.

You need people who are willing to put up with your crap on a monthly, daily, weekly basis. To be okay with your long absences- physical or otherwise- from their lives when you study. People who find tactful ways to share with you when you inevitably drop the ball, without throwing life off-track. Those are the sorts of people we need to surround ourselves with before medical school. Use your gap year to galvanize those relationships. Build into and invest in the people you hold dearest. Have tough conversations with your people about the future. Obviously, it’s not possible to fix every problem in a relationship in a single year, or even two or three, but taking a gap year is an incredible opportunity.  This is the time you can really focus in on the people you care about the most. The hopes is that when the time comes, those relationships can pass through the crucible without cracking.

Gap-Year: You Can’t Afford Not To…

Gap-Year: You Can’t Afford Not To…

  • Author: Matthew Wright

Gap-Year: You Can’t Afford Not To…

In my  attempt to become the living personification of Instagram, I’m going to share a cliché: I don’t believe in regret. Don’t get me wrong, there are decisions that I think would’ve made my life easier. But for the most part, I’m happy with who I am. I know that’s a small minority of people who enjoy that peace, and I’m eternally grateful for it, so don’t think me un-gracious or despondent with life.

Having said that, I have one regret about medical school- I should’ve taken a Gap Year, or two. Today, I want to tell you why.

When I was an undergrad, and before I got accepted to medical school, I thought of a gap year as a consolation prize, a participation trophy. You tried, but just missed the mark, better luck next time sport. I furrowed and bit my tongue when I heard of friends talking about “taking some time off” before applying to medical school, or even after being accepted (deferring as it were). Either a, lying to themselves and they were never going to become physicians-secretly giving up, or b, didn’t value the gift that they had received.

I was wrong. They were the smart ones-they saw something I didn’t. I should’ve listened.

Taking a Gap Year before medical school is arguably the best decision anyone can make after graduation day. Because you’re not ready. I wasn’t ready. Intellectually, sure, you can handle the work, but emotionally, relationally, experientially, identity-wise, and financially you are not ready for the challenge and burden of medical school.

I want to help you with the cost-benefit analysis of taking or not taking a Gap Year, to share with you my experience as best as I can. Hopefully, you’ll learn from my mistakes. I’m not sharing “how to tips” to make the most of your Gap Year. I’m probably not going to go into long diatribes about my own time in medical school. Heck, I’m not even advocating a blanket statement that everyone should take a Gap Year. I just want to help you count the cost of taking a Gap Year, because quite honestly, you can’t afford not to.

This week, I just wanted to introduce where I was coming from. Next time, I hope to share with you a little more specifically about why taking a Gap Year is a great idea, both for your mental and relational health.

Pre-Med Research – Do Med Schools Require Research Experience?

Pre-Med Research – Do Med Schools Require Research Experience?

  • Author: Matthew Wright

Pre-Med Research – Do Med Schools Require Research Experience?

Is Pre-Med Research a Requirement? Yes or No?

If you know me in the real world in any context, you know I love research. I was the kid who was excited when he got a chemistry set for his 5th birthday. It was only much later that I realized my passion for serving and caring for people directly. Even then, I’m hoping for an 80/20 career split between lab and clinic.

Heck, I’ve gone on record saying I should’ve pursued a PhD in physics before med school. And given the now horrified look on your face, dear reader, you’d probably expect me to answer the question posed in the title of this essay with a resounding yes, of course. Well, not to disappoint or to break with  dogma (scratch that, I hate dogma, unless it’s the fact that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell), but you don’t have to do research to be a successful medical school applicant. You hear that? Research isn’t required to get into medical school.

A Thirst for Knowledge

Got that? Good, now we can go home, right? Wrong. Please don’t misunderstand-research is my heart and passion-something I encourage everyone student to at least dip their toes into before and possibly during medical school. It is the lifeblood of the most meaningful advances in medicine-thank God for penicillin. My problem is that we students have conflated research experience with a thirst for knowledge and innovation. Make no mistake, these two things are not the same. The former is something to put on a CV (and can at times demonstrate our hunger for information). The latter is an inherent quality: it cannot be taught, and it must define in part or in whole, the life of any physician.

While every good physician should at their heart be a scientist- hungry to ask questions, push boundaries maybe scientific research is not for you (bench or otherwise). AdComs use research experience as shorthand for our intellection, to see if we can ask deep, probing questions and work through to answer these questions methodically and with perseverance.

Often, it’s decent shorthand. But honestly ask yourself, are you doing research to check a box, or is it because you have a genuine passion for asking hard, often unsolvable questions? That’s what you’re career as a physician will inevitably be-to ask questions of yourself, your patients, systems of people and processes, diseases- and move forward towards finding answers. I ask you, if you don’t have this passion, is a career as a physician the one for you?

Another Way

But here’s the thing: research is not the only way to demonstrate the hunger, the longing for knowledge that plays as magnificent countermelody to a physician’s passion for people. If working at the bench or in the dank-basement doing chart review isn’t for you, demonstrate your love for questions in another way.

Perhaps that’s starting a club or program on campus to address a problem, or working on a service project of your own design where you ask the question, or perhaps it’s starting an innovative business. I don’t really know what else is out there. But show that you can ask questions. Demonstrate to the AdComs that you’re more than grades, more than a love of people (though that’s also key)-show them that at your heart, you are a challenger, a question-asker, a problem-solver; someone who dives headlong into the unknown and is unafraid to keep moving forward.

So no, you don’t have to do scientific research to become an awesome candidate for medical school. What you must have, I think, can best be described as an explorer’s mind. Research just happens to be a convenient way to prove it. If you love research, great. Even so I encourage you to think more deeply, to ask yourself in what other ways you can express your inquisitive spirit, and how that spirit will make you a scientist, doctor, and human. No matter what, never lose your fire for discovery, future physician.