Identities Beyond Medicine

by christine

A writer and medical student at an Ivy League school discusses learning in medicine—perseverance and engagement instead of burnout, gaining the tools for longitudinal learning and kindness to self.

When we came into med school, most of us valued our identities not just as future doctors, but also as artists, teachers, musicians, scientists, athletes, entrepreneurs…

My Identity Outside of Medicine

I know I wasn’t the only one who wondered, what happens now? What happens to those identities now that we’re med students, on this road to become physicians, likely with limited time in the next years to spend on our other passions and interests?

I’ve met dancers, musicians, painters. I talked to the start-up founders and consultants who worked to improve healthcare policy. I shared my ideas with a fellow writer who, like me, has been trying to find time to work on a fictional novel.

My Passion Remains Elsewhere 

Personally, my identity always centered less strongly on medicine and more on my passions in the arts and humanities. I grew up training as a classical pianist, and for a long time when I was younger thought I was going to be a classical musician.

Even after I developed interests in science and medicine and decided to pursue that path, I continued to seriously study music. In college, I spent the majority of my time studying piano and singing a cappella. I studied journalism and wrote many articles as well as stories and poetry on my own time, all of which was incredibly important to my personal growth.  

When I started med school, the future of my other interests seemed tenuous. I started feeling discouraged as I wondered: Now that I no longer have formal instruction, will I have to quit piano? Will I get to sing with people and make music? Will I have any time to write? Will I ever finish that novel?  

How Art Heals 

But something happened last week: we had a patient come in and talk to us—a person who had suffered immensely, and yet throughout all the suffering used art and self-expression as a way to understand what was happening to him. Now, he is producing an artistic work to connect with the donor of the transplant that changed his life.

Healing doesn’t occur only in the context of medicine. Healing involves not just the body but the heart and mind. I’m starting to believe that in addition to being a physician, my identity as a musician and writer can give me the chance to connect with patients and help them heal in those other ways.

The Merging of Identities 

So maybe I don’t have to give up music and writing to medicine, or keep them only as peripheral hobbies—I realized that instead, my identity as an artist can be central to my identity of a physician. It can be what makes this work meaningful for me.

The same goes for all my colleagues who are not “just” med students. Medicine is not an isolated discipline, but is closely connected to the arts and humanities and the social context of our country’s challenges. I believe that in addition to being physicians, we have the option to be physician-scientists, physician-writers, physician-policy makers, and many more—those “physician-” roles will be so important for confronting many difficult societal issues.

I want to tell my colleagues not to give up their identities beyond medicine, as those things are just as important to medicine as medicine itself.

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