Life as a Medical Student: Resilience, Determination, and Sacrifice

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In May of 2011, I was faced with the disappointment of not getting into a Canadian medical school. As such I applied to Ross University- a leading international medical school. After getting the call that I was accepted,  I felt a rush of emotions- joy, excitement, inspiration, and at the very back of my mind- uncertainty. I didn’t exactly know what life in medical school was like, but who cares! I was finally given my chance to prove myself. I was going to be a physician, I made it, I got in! The hard part was finally over… or so I thought.

The first year of medical school introduced me to the rest of my life. Forget all the glamour, pomp, and stylization of hospital life often shown on TV and in movies.  Being a student in medical school is for all intents and purposes a 24 hour commitment. My life consisted of studying, going to class, studying, eating, studying, and maybe getting 5 hours of sleep- if you’re lucky. Many believe that life gets easier once you get accepted, but in all honesty the stress and difficulty of preparing to enter medical school is simply a primer for the real thing. You will be faced with a lot in and it is best to understand that the amount of sacrifice needed during this time in your life will be greater than at any time before. It is also important to embrace the newfound responsibility that is now being placed in your hands. As a medical student, you are well on your way towards having the trust, health and ultimately the lives of others dependent on your medical skills and capabilities. This is of course an extremely serious responsibility, and each and every medical school expects their student will meet their requirements. As such, the four years of medical school are primarily a time of resilience, determination, and sacrifice.

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The first sacrifice is family. It is important to be prepared as well as understand, both you as well as your family, that being a medical student brings additional responsibilities that take away family time. Having had to leave my family in Toronto, it was very easy to become homesick especially when facing the stress and demands of school. As such, I set aside ten minutes at night just to Skype with my parents. It wasn’t much, but it was a reminder that they were still there for me.

The second sacrifice is your social life. Just as it was with your family, you also have to  put aside friends, acquaintances, and significant others. This is one area of my life I often found very difficult to cope with. Being a social person, I love going out and spending time with friends and meeting new people.   However, being in medical school required me to significantly cut down on these extra-curricular escapades.. I had to get used to a life of rejecting offers from friends asking to come hang out for the night simply because I had to study. I had to get accustomed to logging onto Facebook and seeing all my friends post pictures of birthday parties, nights out, and good times- all of which I was no longer a part of. If you are currently in a relationship, ensure that the person you are with understands the career commitment you are about to make- as difficult relationships can make an already stressful lifestyle even more burdensome. Some people are capable of balancing this aspect of their lives with their studies, but others are not. You need to ensure that you surround yourself with people who will consistently support and motivate you.

As I stated earlier, being a medical student is essentially a full-time commitment. The field of medicine consists of an incredibly vast amount of knowledge, and physicians spend lifetimes trying to hone their practice. However, your four years of medical school is where the majority of your medical knowledge will come from and your national medical board will expect that you have not only mastered the memorization and understanding of the material, but also its practical application. As such, be prepared to study. I spent a good 16 hours a day including class time trying to master the material in my first two years of basic sciences. This commitment is incredibly hard, and proper dedication, time management skills, and organization is an absolute must if you wish to succeed in medical school. But the study of medicine is a lifelong process. Many of the senior physicians I do my clinical rotations with consistently have to keep up with the ever-evolving field of medicine, and as such need to study new research findings in their spare time.

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Another aspect of medical school I was not ready for was the complete shift in terms of academic examination and thinking. Whereas academic success in undergraduate studies often relied on rote memorization, medical schools place a great emphasis on the practical application of your knowledge. They try and gather as much evidence as they can from the patient, and then try to piece the information together to form a diagnosis. This is only half the battle however, as a doctor must not only know how to identify, but also treat the patient’s condition. This forced me to go beyond studying only my lecture materials and obtain information and knowledge from outside sources.  What you learn is to develop proper research and problem solving skills, as answers will not simply be given to you.  Medical school takes an enormous physical and emotional toll on yourself, and thus it is important to take care of your own mental and physical health. I found that my academic success was intrinsically tied to my physical and emotional well-being. Although enormous sacrifice in a necessary requirement, one area I learned I could not afford to neglect was my own health. Maintaining a well-balanced diet as well as exercising regularly helped me balance and cope with the stress of studying in my life and helped me build confidence. Many medical students succumb to time constraints and pressure and neglect their own well-being. This produces disastrous results. In order to be ready to take care of others, you must be sure that you have taken care of yourself.

While the entirety of this article has dealt with the challenges I have faced in medical school, I would like to share one more aspect that has helped me get through the tough times and is a requirement for any aspiring doctor: resilience. Medical school is a very humbling experience. I have been placed in many difficult situations involving patients, tests, and other colleagues and there have been times where I have not always succeeded. You must learn that this is completely fine. The art of medical practice is one that is continually honed for the rest of your life. Do not be afraid to make mistakes and stumble, as this will almost certainly happen. At times like this, you must remind yourself of the opportunity that has been given to you. Learning from your mistakes now will help you become a better doctor in the future, and be able to provide better care for your patients.

A young caring doctor

Regardless of where you are in your medical aspirations, keep in mind the enormous commitment that will be required of you. Medical school itself is a primer for life as a medical doctor and the challenges you face there will continue to be faced for the rest of your life. But I assure you, if you are dedicated to a medical dream, the rewards are more than worth the effort you must put into it. The positive difference you make in the lives of the ill and suffering is incomparable to almost anything else you have experienced. The intense studying and preparation I have had to go through has prepared me well for my clinical rotations and has allowed me to impress attending physicians in Canada and the U.S. Do not be afraid to take the leap. Have confidence in yourself and keep in mind these challenges that have to be overcome so that you can be prepared to tackle them head on as you pursue your dream. Resilience, determination, and sacrifice will take you there.

Related:

Thinking About Going Overseas for Medical School? Here’s What You Need to Know

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25 thoughts on “Life as a Medical Student: Resilience, Determination, and Sacrifice

  1. If you can’t get into Canadian med school then that means, your not fit to be a doctor. Your better off flip dosas at dosa shop. My son was in same position, he applied and got accepted into St.George medical school @ Grenada. I didn’t let him go, its embarrassing enough he didn’t get into Canada. What use is it in the Caribbean,

  2. I totally agree that medical students sacrifice a lot to help others.  It really is not a journey that one would want to take based on pressure or external forces.  
    In regards to where you take it, the author says it as it is.  I don’t think it matters where you go as long as you are willing to you willing to make a commitment to be assiduous.   Are the prospects limited for IMGs?  no, but they are harder to reach.  And you know what?  The harder the journey, the more worth it, it is.  
    Good article.

  3. This is definitely quite accurate in terms of a medical student’s perspective. People often see them as brilliant, dedicated, and hardworking individuals, invincible to the toils of study and exams, when there’s so much more to that which they have to deal with. It’s a great read in terms of promoting awareness of the sacrifices one has to make in the life-changing decision to pursue the medical career. May you receive nothing but success in your fruitful journey!

  4. Murali Dutt
    Dear Murali Butt, 
    I’ll flip your dosas, okay. Seriously though, I am noticing
    a few things about your response. One, YOU just embarrassed your son, so
    claiming that his acceptance into medical school did that is just plain
    ignorant. Two, you care too much what people think; hence, you cared to crush
    your own son’s dream of becoming a potentially great physician, and you decided
    to write this patronizing comment. Are you even a patron of anything? Maybe a
    dosa shop?
    On another note, I’m from America and I didn’t even apply to
    Canadian schools, yet I’m fit to be an amazing, empathetic, highly knowledgeable
    physician. I went to Ross University School of Medicine, like Joe, in the
    Caribbean. So next time you decide to take a little break from whatever it is
    that you do, keep your rude comments out of places they don’t belong. Do your
    research.

  5. Joy, well written. I know it is tough to study and practice medicine. Not easy as many think. That was why, I studied law!!!

  6. Murali Dutt
    Mr. Dutt, how are you able to breathe
    long enough to type? The air must be ultra-thin up there on your high horse! 
    I am a third-year
    medical resident at a pretty top-notch US institution, if I do say so myself. I
    went to a very good medical school in California. My little brother graduated
    from Ross University in the Caribbean and is currently a resident at a top US school. 
    Is my brother in
    the minority group of successful students? Perhaps. But he worked his butt off,
    and I can say that he is a far better diagnostician than I am, and he is two
    years behind me. And I can assure you that if you were to receive his phenomenal care, you wouldn’t ask twice about where he went to school.
    So keep that in mind next time you try and force your narrow-minded
    opinions on others. I only feel sorry that you didn’t have enough faith in your
    son to prove himself.

  7. Murali Dutt Though you may be a man with the wisdom of age, I must say you have not done the proper research based on your remarks.  I am currently a Ross University Medical Student.  I have a 4.0 after 2 years of study and a Step 1 score of 244, and I am by far not the top of the class.  There are many of my fellow students who out compete over 95% of the U.S. and Canadian medical students.  Most of us had the grades and MCAT scores to be competitive but for whatever reason, we did not get in to U.S./Canadian medical schools.  A common theme was that our mothers and fathers were not doctors who were or knew medical school faculty members.  Will we get U.S. residencies? You bet your 401K we will.  Most U.S. medical schools graduate 115-150 docs who receive a residency/each year.  My school has already had over 700 graduates successfully receive residencies in EVERY field in March alone.  The average U.S. medical school USMLE Step 1 pass rate is 96%, my school is 97%.  Why is that?  Because we know that there is an unfounded negative opinion of our skills which makes us work even harder to become the best physicians possible.  I probably received a better education on the island of Dominica than I would have in Michigan.  Ask any U.S. 1st or 2nd year medical student how many pap smears they’ve done and the answer is mostly likely a resounding zero.  Ask me and my fellow students and we have all done at least one.  If your son truly wants to become a physician then I am sure he will find a way regardless of your shame and embarrassment.  I will tell you this, if you ever come to see me or my friends after we have graduated and received our residencies I assure you that you will think we are the best darn doctors that have ever treated you.  Why?  Cause mommy and daddy did not pull strings to get us into school, we have fought, scratched, gouged, and sacrificed everything to become physicians.

  8. Well written.  As a fellow medical student, I can say I have experienced everything you mentioned. No matter how resilient one thinks they are, there will always be new sacrifices and challenges.  That’s the life and dream we chose to pursue.  I can say that the journey for me has been struggling at times but the little victories along the way are rewarding.  Sharing the adventure with fellow medical students whom I call friends, helps make the dream seem closer.  All the best on your journey Joe.

  9. This is a truly inspiring and well written article. I actually sent it to my parents. I will be applying to medical school very soon, as I will be completing my MCAT this summer. Although it seems pretty challenging, I do believe that like you, the reward will be so much greater after completion. Thank you for pursuing you dream, and showing us to never give up on your passion no matter what the odds against us, or obstacles that will come our way.

  10. This is a very well-written and well-intentioned article. However, sometimes I feel that in the process of trying to build people up and be civil, we don’t really state reality. I definitely agree that determination, resilience and sacrifice will help make goals come true including the goal of becoming a doctor. However, I think it is worth considering whether the goal is sincere. There are many compassionate souls who truly enter the medical field out of a desire to help people, but let’s face it, in our culture, there is a significant pressure to become a doctor simply because of prestige, money, mate potential or parental pressure. Should people really be encouraged to be determined and resilient when this is the motivating factor. Throughout undergrad, I’ve met dozens of Tamil colleagues who simply drudged through classes mindlessly, jumping through the hoops simply to obtain the arbitrarily defined holy grail of medical school acceptance – these students were completely unpassionate, entitled, brain-dead and frankly undeserving. They had a mindset of disgusting pragmatism – I’m going to volunteer in a hospital because it looks good on my resume – I’m going to go do a medical tourism stint for a month (on appa’s dime of course) because that’ll really show them how much I care about suffering. Of course for having done this, when they return to Canada they continue to live the same indulgent, consumerist, superficial and spoiled lifestyle. It really is just an act of showmanship.
    And then – surprise! – they don’t get into med school in Canada. And then what do they do – they have to save face after all – they go to Ireland or the Caribbeans to some for-profit crony institution (some of which accept students straight out of high school with a C average and no biology background) and then come back to Canada to convince people that they really are smart. Let’s just call it what it is. Being a doctor is perceived as a surrogate for intelligence and value and hence the “determination” in becoming a doctor, but life science programs and med schools have to do with memorization not insight or intelligence. Chances are if you can’t scrape the required credentials (GPA, extra-curriculars) in a pre-med program where the expectation is the lowest standard of intelligence (memorization), it’s time to look at the writing on the wall.

    There are exceptions to this of course – despite Canada having a chronic shortage of doctors, the number of spaces at med schools is not increased. This is because the number of slots is informed by the College of Physicians – this is an inherent conflict of interest. If there are too many doctors, wages fall, so instead, they create this artificial shortage. About 20% of rejects fit into this category – completely deserving but victims of selfish policy. (of course, if one day these rejects eventually are appointed to the College of Physicians would they reverse this policy – probably not, it would hurt their wages, and that is why they entered the field after all). However, the other 80% of rejects are actually undeserving.

    Maybe we should be teaching youth in our culture to stop being so narrow-minded and pursue what they’re actually good at. There is more value to a human being and a society than just being a doctor – this is a ridiculous and false standard. You want to show me intelligence – show me a mathematician or a physicist, not a doctor. It takes plenty of grit and determination to make it other professions too. People who want to be doctors should do it for its own sake, not for praise or as a status symbol. What a hollow life – to first complain about getting into med schools – and then complain about how difficult it is in med school. Well wake up folks, what do you think comes afterwards – a cakewalk? It’s not a profession where you give 40 hours a week and then come home. This is not a job that you leave at the office, this is a commitment to a way of life – nothing wrong with that, but when it’s motivated by ego and prestige – pathetic! You talk about sacrifice – this is the most pointless form of sacrifice.What a waste of life and potential. It’s depressing that the linear thinking of the upper generations has been successfully transferred to today’s youth.

  11. While there are many excellent students who pursue medicine outside
    Canada because of the stifling competition in Canada, there are also
    many more students who pursue medicine at for-profit schools for the
    sake of the title and prestige, but lack the aptitude or work ethics
    necessary to succeed as a physician. I think this is what makes the
    Caribbean system very suspect. I was fortunate to be trained at the top
    school in Canada and have in turn seen my share of many clerks form
    Caribbean schools make their elective rounds in Canada. I had classmates
    from undergrad who just missed out on getting into a Canadian school
    and ultimately made the decision to go to the Caribbean. Alas, I also
    had classmates who barely passed undergrad and couldn’t get a decent
    score on the MCAT if their life depended on it, and yet, also got
    accepted to Caribbean schools – herein lies the problem of low standards
    at Caribbean schools. And, for the record, the probability of
    returning to practice in Canada as a Caribbean grad is many times harder
    than the probability of getting into a Canadian medical school in the
    first place. So many students are left with massive debts and
    uncertainty – only option is often settling down in a second-tier US
    city.

  12. HolyBaloney For the record, we don’t have a shortage of doctors in Canada (and certainly not in Ontario). And medical schools in the province have responded with a 40% increase in enrollment over the last 8 years. And, by 2017, we are projected to have an excess of doctors in Ontario. Many specialists positions in Canada are over-filled and newly trained residents are in fact out of work (many surgical specialties, rad onc, pediatrics just to name a few). So please do not post ill-informed opinions. I am in fact on the board of young Canadian doctors looking to fix the problem of excess doctors in Ontario.

  13. Canadian_MD HolyBaloneyMy opinions are not ill-formed. You state that there isn’t a shortage of doctors – “certainly not in Ontario” – then why did they increase enrollment by 40% in this province – for fun? If by 2017, we’re expected to have an excess of doctors, that means in the present (when I’m writing – I don’t have a time machine), we have a shortage as I wrote. Wow! What a surprise. Another doctor with no analytical skills arrogantly asserting his cloudy thinking as fact. When you learn to write two consecutive sentences without contradicting yourself, maybe you can pull off the pretence of being intelligent. 
    If you are in fact “trained at the top school in Canada” as you point out in your above post, I hate to see what undeserving students look like. Actually, I already know what they look like – they look like you.You are correct that there are a glut of specialists but – surprise! – more so in the specialties that make the most money. That is why most are doctors after all. Wouldn’t want to miss out on the money (and the chance to impress people with our title and prestige). This isn’t about helping people, it’s about garnering a big paycheck. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck – it’s a quacking doctor. However, there is also a shortage of family physicians and primary care providers, so that on the whole there is in fact a shortage of doctors. Shortage may be a relative term so let me define what I mean – in a country where there is government healthcare, it actually makes sense to have an oversupply of doctors so that instead of say, X doctors working 60 hours a week, we have 1.5X doctors working 40 hours a week. This keeps wages (paid for by the taxpayer) at a level that does not bankrupt the state, and makes for much better patient care when doctors aren’t chronically rushing from one patient to another. If there is a glut of specialists, make it more competitive to be a specialist or (more effectively) reduce their salaries. The best way to deal with drones who do things purely for money is to play the supply and demand game.

    The biggest problem with Canadian healthcare is that doctors are allowed to decide health policy at the broadest level. Doctors are trained to deal with patients and nothing more. There are policy experts specifically for this that have a much better grasp of high-level data. If you are in fact, “on the board of young Canadian doctors looking to fix the problem of excess doctors in Ontario”, you would be a perfect example of a moron who has infiltrated the system to make it even worse to suit your own selfish ends.

  14. HolyBaloney Canadian_MD I wasn’t trying to be offensive or rude in my reply to your original comment. My apologies if it came off that way. However, this is a topic of great interest to me (and, as I said, I am on the committee that is addressing this issue at a policy level). You picked apart trivially at my syntax, but all I met was that yes there WAS a doctor shortage that was blindly addressed by government in the form of increasing enrollment in medschools and training more IMGs. But this approach has now set the stage of an over-supply of doctors in major cities in EVERYTHING (including family doctors – which I am myself). Most of our internal studies and analysis hint at a major oversupply and job glut in the next ~5 years. This is a major concern for everyone in residency right now. Your remarks suggest you’re not a doctor or medical student in Canada since you would share my viewpoint otherwise. This is what I meant my ill-informed. It was not meant to be a personal attack.
    And going back to the original article here, I think IMGs job prospect in Canada in the future is next to zero. Residency spots for IMGs will be phased out in many specialties and drastically reduced in everything else. So if you choose to pursue the IMG route, please be aware of the realities.

  15. Thanks so much for this great article Joe. As an aspiring medical student, you have really put things into perspective for me!

  16. great article @joey>> being a medical student myself,i have experienced the same situations as u did!! but I GUESS THE SITUATION IS MUCH TOUGHER HERE, IN INDIA WHERE THE NUMBER OF PATIENTS SURPASS THE NO. OF BEDS AT YOUR HOSPITAL and expectations from u as a med student are much higher

  17. I would really like to reference this article in my dissertation, but I have nobody to reference, would it be possible for the author of this article or someone who knows who s/he is and has some sort of contact for them get in touch with me. thanks

  18. This article is very helpful for people like me who are medic aspirators and who one day will face the challenges as the doctor so its best to know prior to experience.

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