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A Turn of the Clock: A Student Perspective on Remaining “Present” in Medical School

Updated: May 12

Tuesday morning. 9:46 AM. I’ve been awake for 5 hours and yet 2 more hours of lecture sit on the desk in front of me while a mid-morning nap teases me from the bed just a few feet behind me. Snacks are within grasp if only I …. Lecture, cardiovascular pathology. Lecture, Chase, Lecture!


This is a common experience in my life since mid-March, 2020. Like many of you, regardless of your position or place in life, I took on a dramatic change in physical and mental environment when my normal location of study seemed to be ripped out from underneath me. Medical school, relationships, and my well-being shift on a teeter-totter that bounces around as quickly as the hands around a clock face. When I came to medical school, I knew exactly what I hoped to build for myself while I embodied the student-doctor persona. You may not be surprised to hear, that the pandemic hasn’t changed my pursuit of it, rather it provides detours and scenic views that I did not have in my original blueprint.


So, you might be thinking, “what did Chase envision for medical school?”. Despite my fear of simplifying the learning experience, I’ll summarize my hopes in a few short words: Present-ness, Purpose, and Investment. And though my Attention Disorder doesn’t necessarily enhance these hopes – it does ride shotgun to the COVID-19 driver of the vehicle of my M2 year. I hope to share how these ideas accumulate in my struggles with learning in a digital-only world, but also how they make me stronger as a result. I don’t know what this looks like for anyone else, but here is how it looks for me:


I was stuck in the scenario of my relationship with myself where I sat down to do something, but rather than placing my focus where it needed to be, I was distracted. Think about that friend you talk to who is always on their phone, even when you speak right to them. It doesn’t feel great, and you don’t get feelings of “care” from them at all. It is me, I’m the friend getting in my own way. I’ve figuratively been on my phone rather than giving each moment a full look in school and in life.


Investment

Medical students are a unique brand of learner. We willingly give up at least 11 years of our lives just to claim the “attending physician” title. When we don the white coat or make that first cadaveric incision our souls reignite with a sense of “this is how I get there”. And few feelings will ever replace that. I am no different and pride myself on a jump-in head-first type of commitment. But when the majority of doctor-like learning has been taken from me, and my laptop is worn from additional finger taps, my investment in my mission to practice medicine is challenged, combatted, and honestly broken down. My big picture looks more like telehealth and recorded lectures than ever before. I don’t like it. Suddenly I crave the frigid temperatures of lecture halls just to remember what it’s like to willingly be uncomfortable in pursuit of this dream. And then it hits me. The happenings of this pandemic are nothing but a speed bump. How can I double down and reinvest my energy not in feeling bad for myself because medical school got that much harder but remember that I knew the challenge was a non-negotiable in this process. I started to sit down with a journal revisit why I gave up another career to someday be a physician …


Purpose

Sick kids, sad families, and my own memories of the emergency room waiting room brought me here. My experience with health disparity pushed me forward and an unyielding sense of belonging in the clinic gets me up in the morning. But when our Clinical Apprenticeship course was restricted in 2020, I felt my ability to connect with my education shift – people are my purpose, health is my outcome. Where are they now? Why am I still here? How can I keep caring?


Present-ness

The crux of medical education, of every patient encounter, of the attention to detail required for high-quality care is in every moment. The more I felt cheated by circumstance the more I realized I was missing the bigger picture. Despite the challenges set forth by these “unprecedented times” I remembered something that I was asked the first time I stepped on a baseball field as a teenager, “What are you going to get out of this moment? This practice?”.


In movies, this normally appears as a memory followed by a shift in time that reveals small moments of growth, impact, and of focus. I had a similar out-of-body experience. I re-read my personal statement for medical school. Looked over my interview notes and remembered one important fact – MCW has my academic trust, that’s why I came here. MCW trusts me to work within my means to grow into a capable student-doctor. I realized my focus had been drifting away from the basket I put all of my chips in and re-routed my path to something of drama, excuses, and self-deprecation. I thought I was absorbed in my education but instead I was saturated by a feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the stimuli around me. And so I took on an important task of taking my purpose for coming to medical school, my investment in the journey I signed up for, and I asked myself what I needed to be present in my learning, my relationships, and my goals. The answer surprised me. Do less.


Do less?


I will work for hours straight under the assumption that more is better. It never works out for me. But when my office and bedroom are the same places, it is easier than ever to let work and life be the same thing. My solution? A 30-minute hourglass where I dedicate one turn to one activity and one activity only. If I finish early, I take a break. If I need more time, I note my progress, take a 5-minute break and start fresh with another turn. Just like we have windows of time set-aside for patients, meetings, or other tasks I use my hourglass method to fully commit me to this moment. Whether it’s a small group (where I still take a break to disconnect after 30 minutes), a lecture, or this article. Staying present in the pandemic requires struggle and suffering, but a soft reminder of why I’m here and the attention this work deserves has brought me back from my teeter-totter and helped me make each moment one of commitment. I urge you to find the same and remember that 100% attention in 1 thing, always feels better than a split-attention.

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