Medical School Mentorship Series: Having Faith

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.

A confession: I didn’t feel ready to start medical school. In fact, I found myself staring at the calendar and dreading orientation as the date quickly approached during the summer. There were a number of reasons for this. I was apprehensive of what seemed like the daunting demands of med school and residency after that, especially in light of what I kept hearing about burnout and career dissatisfaction. I had wanted more time to continue writing and playing music, two things I was passionate about and yet was afraid would have to give up. And my significant other was away in New York, making this transition especially tough for me to face.

I am not afraid to say that I struggled a lot at first, but I can think of many people who provided support through it. One of these people was Dr. Anthony D’Amico. After listening to his talk to our class, in which he spoke in a serene but impassioned manner about the wisdom he had gained over the years, I found myself tearing up. I went over to talk to him afterwards, and we had a very genuine conversation about my goals and fears, and how I felt about med school and being away from my partner.

Last week, I met with Dr. D’Amico to discuss wellness in med school. Dr. D’Amico is a radiation oncologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana Farber, and advises and mentors medical students at Harvard. In his spare time, he also enjoys martial arts and teaching tae kwon do. Whenever I speak to him, I find that he has an especially calm manner; he always seems unrushed, and has a thoughtful word to offer.

“How do you advise students to be well in med school?” I asked him.

His response was: “Love, forgiveness, and faith.”

Love

Love, said Dr. D’Amico, is a powerful human force, amplifying our actions beyond what solely exists within ourselves. And yet, he said: “Love should be shared first with oneself—in a way, it is hypocritical to say you love another when you don’t show that towards yourself.”

But often, we don’t love ourselves. As I wrote about before on the subject of Imposter Syndrome, we tend to blame ourselves for our faults and refuse to take responsibility for our achievements. We tell ourselves that we don’t belong, that we only got to where we did because we got lucky. That we don’t deserve our successes.

Dr. D’Amico felt his share of this, coming from an immigrant family and making his way to MIT and then med school, yet often feeling that he didn’t belong in these highly intellectually challenging environments. It was something that he had to grapple with and eventually come to terms with on his own.

“I had to learn to respect myself for the good things I was given and the good things I choose to do myself,” he said.

As a mentor, he realized how important it was to respect himself first. Teaching students, he found that there was a huge difference where the desire to teach came from—trying to prove oneself and quell one’s insecurities, or genuinely trying to help the mentee. Once he was able to respect himself and his abilities first, he found himself in a better place to truly offer his full guidance to students, taking the extra step to help them through their own insecurities.

Forgiveness

Putting yourself in “jail”—it’s something we all do. We punish ourselves for our failures, whether that’s failing a test, letting down a friend, or falling short on some goal we set. We put ourselves in jail for a different length of time depending on how badly we messed up. But Dr. D’Amico argued, it’s better to seek forgiveness and let ourselves out.

According to him, there is a logistical side and an emotional side to forgiving oneself. Logistically, it comes down to making a plan: if you failed a test, seek help and make a plan to study better next time; if you said something you didn’t mean to your friend, find a way to sincerely apologize.

The next part is to be able to achieve forgiveness on an emotional level. Dr. D’Amico said that it’s important to remember: “You’re human and you’re not perfect—no one is, but you deserve another chance, freely, unconditionally, and without punishment. Recognize that you will fail and make mistakes. But that’s okay, we all do—teachers do, the people who created the situation in which you feel like you failed, they fail too.”

Dr. D’Amico had an experience where he struggled with failure, when he first started at MIT as an undergraduate. Coming from high school, where he was accustomed to acing tests without studying, he didn’t know how to study when the material wasn’t immediately accessible. He failed his first calculus test. Discouraged, he questioned whether he belonged.

With time, he began to see that his college experience was more than just passing or failing tests. He dedicated time to learning how to study, learning how to learn. Over the years, he found himself beginning to feel more comfortable at MIT not because he had grasped all the material, but because he had accepted the limits of his knowledge and yet was willing to learn.

This was an important lesson for him—that forgiveness comes hand in hand with humility. As a medical resident in oncology many years later, he founded himself in the high-pressure scenario of trying to insert an IV into a patient whose veins were hard to find. Despite his anxiousness in the moment, he took a deep breath and said to the patient, “I’m going to do my best, but we know we have a backup plan if this doesn’t work.”

Suddenly, he felt better. Admitting out loud that he might not succeed had put both himself and the patient more at ease. This was a moment that made him realize how important humility is—knowing that we won’t always succeed, because we are human, but being willing to try our best anyway.

Faith

If we can’t always trust in our abilities to get everything right, then what can we trust in? This comes to the matter of faith.

“Faith,” said Dr. D’Amico, “is a belief that one holds, but can’t necessarily prove, that things happen for a reason, that the dictator of what happens in your life is a loving force.”

For some, faith is based in a religious identity, but it doesn’t have to be. To Dr. D’Amico, faith is trusting that everything that happens in life, both the good and the bad, bring you to the successes that you are able to accomplish. Achieving this success might not happen in a straight line, a predictable arrow of a path—success, however you define it, is a winding path, and faith is believing that you’re taking that path for a reason.

Dr. D’Amico employs an exercise that he calls, “What happened next?” When something goes wrong or differently from what he hoped, he tries to recall similar situations from the past, and writes down what resulted from those situations. What he finds often is that for instance, the job placement that he was unhappy about resulted in meeting several important mentors, or the time he spent apart from his wife only ended up in them becoming even closer. To him, this exercise illustrates the concept of faith—believing that our paths will lead us to where we need to be.

Put to the Test 

As medical students, my peers and I are often going to be challenged; we will find ourselves in situations where we don’t know what to do, and even situations where we fail under high pressure. This is where the faith that Dr. D’Amico described will come into play.

I asked him what advice he would want to give to his mentees and medical students elsewhere. Addressing the issue of burnout, he said, “You have to maintain your identity. Make time for the people you love and the things you love. If you want it, you make that happen.” He advised us to “express ourselves and be real,” both to ourselves and to others who care about us.

“Love yourself,” said Dr. D’Amico. “Respect yourself, forgive yourself, be kind to yourself. You’re not going to be any good to anyone if you’re not kind to you.”

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