Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

” Not because they are easy, but because they are hard..”

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”  John F. Kennedy at Rice University on Sept 12, 1962.


Why choose medicine (or any profession in health care) if the work and preparation for that work is so hard? I asked myself why I spent hours in chemistry, physics and biology lab when my friends who were business and marketing majors were spending their weekends enjoying the club scene and knew the latest shows on the telly? Why was I putting in the hours making sure that my organic chemistry lab reports were accurate and complete? Why did I choose to study advanced applied differential equations, multivariate calculus and higher algebra (math minor) when I could have stopped with integral calculus? In short, why did I deliberately choose a rigorous college education in math and science where I demanded only the highest performance from myself when I could have taken a far easier route? The answer for me was pretty simple, “I had to know how things worked” and setting a hard goal energizes me and my skills.

Yes, my majors in undergraduate were considered difficult by some people but they were sheer heaven for me. Every minute that I spent in lab and applying math theories was not a chore but a pleasure. I had always loved to “figure things out” and I had parents who challenged me (and my siblings) to always do our best work no matter how many hours the job would take. From undergraduate to graduate school (I was a research scientist before medical school), I could focus in on a problem and see many alternative methods to solve that problem. I wanted to explain mathematically, how energy from a laser was transmitted via a heavy mineral acid matrix to a delicate protein in order for that protein to become ionized. I wanted to understand the mathematical model for that phenomenon and others. Fortunately for me, science allowed me to go where my mind could take me and then some.

So what does that mean in terms of medicine? This means that all of my previous studies from primary school to secondary school to undergraduate university to graduate university and medical school are all aimed at understanding why and figuring out how things work especially the human disease phenomenon. One simply has to have a grasp of the whole picture and the whole person in order to have a strong perspective as to how to best help that patient. Medicine is not like business in that one can take a “shortcut” and still get to goal. Medicine is like preparing for a marathon or to lose 100 pounds in that one has to see the long-term goal, work constantly and consistently at a high level and one has to remain vigilant or the goal slips away. This doesn’t mean that the path toward the goal isn’t pleasant because the journey is great fun but the most enjoyment comes when one sees how building upon a knowledge base and application of that knowledge base actually solves a problem for a patient.

I remember spending hours as a third-year medical student in the anatomy lab as I was perfecting my suture techniques. I sutured the skin of cadavers much to the chagrin of the first-year medical students who had spent hours removing or dissecting that skin. I would come into the lab before my surgical rotation started (I was there at 3AM); practiced my suturing and tying techniques and was off (smelling of formaldehyde) to write my morning notes before rounds. Yes, it was “hard” to get up on a cold and snowy morning when it was dark outside and head to a cold anatomy lab with cold steel tanks all around. No, I didn’t “have to” get up early and practice my suturing and tying but after I knew that I wanted to be a surgeon, I knew that I had to put in the time and hone my skills.

When I was in the hospital on overnight call, I went to the library and read about my patients’ problems. I refreshed my knowledge of pathology, I reviewed every medication that they were on and I made notes of how the disease process should progress. Was this easy? No, it was far easier to grab a nap because the Trauma pager would be going off practically continuously after 9 PM and I would be in the emergency department almost constantly until 5AM when it was time for pre-rounding. I learned to cat nap on call (sleep no more than 20 minutes), read when I was exhausted (putting my feet up was better than sleeping for hours and hone in on a surgical procedure while the rest of the world slept. Was it easy? No but I had set a long-term goal for myself and I was determined to get the job done with the same work ethic that my parents instilled from day one.

Conquering Hard Goals

Excellence becomes a habit if it is practiced on a hourly basis. This was the first thing that my parents instilled in me. When self-doubt creeps in and procrastination begins, remember that you can turn around your thinking in the next instant. Why is it so easy to NOT do something well when it is just as easy to DO that something well? There is always more than one way to do anything and any method that one chooses that brings about excellent results that are safe and ethical  is the method to accomplish something. In one’s academics, there is little time to spend on “thinking” about how inferior/superior you are in relation to one’s peers if one is constantly striving toward a long term goal of consistent excellent performance. This doesn’t mean that one wastes time on being “anal” or a “perfectionist” because these two traits carried to an extreme waste too much energy. Consistent excellence means building upon a foundation and linking prior knowledge to present knowledge to setting the foundation for future knowledge.

Sometimes one needs to get a different perspective. If you are finding that you are “spinning your wheels” on a task that seems insurmountable, break that task into more manageable pieces and tackle each one in turn until the whole task is done. Again, if you have 100 pounds to lose, you have to lose that weight one pound at a time. You can’t spend time hating the process (takes away from time that could be better spent working toward the goal) and you can’t afford to indulge in self-pity “Why is it so hard for me and so easy for everyone else?”. In short, your goals and challenges are unique to you and trust me on this one, everyone has goals and challeges that you may or may not be able to see or appreciate. You are no lesser or no greater than any person around you but you can make better or worse decisions as to how you will handle your challenges and goals.

Look from a different perspective

I have been fortunate enough to have spent some quality time looking at the world from the cockpit of my small plane. When I need to put a problem or goal into perspective, I head “up top” and look at the wonders of the world below. When I fly in a commercial airliner, the world below is much smaller at 37,000 feet (on a clear day), than at 3,000 to 6,000  feet where I can mentally interact with things below. The people below are not insignificant at that altitude and the world below becomes more than just the day in and day out tasks of getting things done. In short, find something (for me, it’s flying) that can take you out of your world for a short period of time and help you refocus. For me, flying takes focus and concentration but the pay off is worth the effort. It’s a challenge for a person who thrives on challenge.


You can see the goal (the runway) down there and you can take the steps to line up and get down there to that runway. Flying for me, is a metaphor for meeting the challenges that I encounter on a daily basis. Again, I learned to fly not because it was easy but because it was a hard challenge” that it “serves to organize and measure the best of (my )energies and skills ” and it allows me to accept, willingly, other challenges (not postpone them) that I meet in life.

14 December, 2013 Posted by | organization, relaxation | 8 Comments