My cousin and I went on a road trip to Hinton at the beginning of clerkship, and a gem emerged from our conversation that sharpened my focus as I head into electives and my fourth and final year of medical school.
It was one of those drives that had the makings of a good road trip talk. She was visiting Canada just before she’d fly to Cambodia to teach elementary children for at least a year. I was just starting ICC and still figuring out what kind of doctor I wanted to be. There was a beautiful autumn day and a long stretch of highway road ahead of us. Conditions were perfect to muse about life.
We talked about her recent graduation. She described how much she enjoyed her time in university because in spite of the pressure she faced from her Asian immigrant family to study a professional program, she forged her own path and shaped her arts degree according to her interests.
I could relate because although I am studying medicine, I got into medical school two years after I finished my science degree. In those two years, I jostled with my Asian immigrant parents about their strongly-impressed “hope” for me to be a doctor. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue medicine, so I dabbled in different ventures with varying degrees of success. It took a while for me to decide for myself that I wanted to be in medicine.
Although neither of us followed our parents’ expected linear path to success, we felt okay about ourselves. We knew that they were proud of us and would support us no matter what, but they’d still cringe when we stumbled. We didn’t set out to disappoint our parents, but we didn’t feel like our paths were disappointing. In fact, we were quite happy with what we’ve done and where we were at the moment.
There was a pause in our conversation, and then she offered this thought that I’ve repeated many times since:
It isn’t compromise when you find out that some things just aren’t that important.
It can be argued that med students are selected for being overachieving go-getters who want to be the best. And in the context of medical school, the people who are often applauded are the researchers and specialists. And what you applaud, you encourage. Intentionally or not, rightly or wrongly, we are conditioned to be impressed by those people – maybe even to aspire to be like them.
I found that my time in Hinton challenged my idea of success in medicine. While the rural physicians did not have the same type of academic or research accolades, their careers were nevertheless commendable. Among many things, I appreciated the wide scope of practice, the variety of practice settings, the confidence to take on undifferentiated problems, and, perhaps most importantly, the ongoing relationships with their patients about their patients’ health.
Being in Hinton gave me space to consider what I find worthwhile. It’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of electives and research projects and reference letters because everyone else is in a rush to build up their applications for competitive specialties. But since I was geographically removed from most of my peers, I wasn’t riled up by the flurry of activity. Instead, I got to pause, measure, and reflect on my clinical experience to judge what specialty I would want to pursue independent of what everyone else was chasing. (Not that I’m shy of competition!)
I grew to appreciate how there are shades of grey in assessing success. That spectrum, in fact, is why medicine is a great career: it can branch off in many directions to fit emerging interests. So I don’t have to change who I am; rather, I can seek out a path that fits with my priorities, not someone else’s. I am not compromising because my career is different from celebrated doctors. I can direct my ambition in areas that I find fulfilling.
I’ve started my elective time now, so I’m off across the country to check out programs that interest me. From now until we submit our CaRMS applications in fourth year, I’ll be weighing a TON of work and lifestyle considerations. I’ve benefitted from seeing medicine done in a different way through the ICC, and that exposure has sharpened my focus because I’m more attuned to picking out elements I want in my practice and finding commendable physicians from whom I can draw wisdom and experience.
When asked about kind of doctor she wanted to be, one fellow ICC student said it simply: “A happy one.” I’m glad that there are many ways to building a fulfilling career in medicine. Everyone has their own story. I’ve set out to figure out my values and priorities because once I do that, the rest will fall into place. There’s no compromise in that.