The world of medicine is for many of us, shrouded in a kind of mystery and awe. It encompasses a different language, a different culture, and holds an almost mythical power.
The paths leading us here were wildly different. From the high ranking military official who had fought in Iraq, the emergency medicine adrenaline junkies, the immigrant from Iran with a family full of children… and then there was me; the “aggie” animal science transplant. It was true, I coveted the medical degree just as much as they all did . But my path was probably the most round about, and I’d spent much of my undergrad years mucking around in rubber boots.
I often wondered what in the world I was doing here.
Out of over 4,000 applicants, we were the 40 odd students who somehow had made the cut, and we would become essentially a family over the next 3 years. We were here because we craved entrance into this world of heroic magic. Each of us had our reasons; some noble, some less so.
Why was I here?
Even as I sat posing for my student badge photo, my hair still ragged and uneven on the edges, I kept thinking it must be some kind of mistake. My step-father (who had been my sole father figure most of my life) had slowly deteriorated from his battle with cancer that summer and just the week prior to my first day had faded away into the night. After coming home from that God-awful cold, dark mortuary where I couldn’t bear to go in and see him, I calmly sat at the dining room table and chopped off my long tresses, not bothering to even out the edges.
The day after the service I would drive back to our new Victorian rental in a small coastal Californian town I had never heard of and throw myself into my new life with a reckless abandon.
The flat was huge, cold and quiet. My husband had already started his new job at an aerospace company so I had too much time to sit and think. I was grateful then, that they had already given us some monstrous assignments. I was grateful for the mental stamina they required. They were the perfect distraction and I devoured and savored them with relish.
I had (foolishly I found out later) only applied to three Physician Assistant programs. Touro was tacked on as an afterthought. The typical PA program was 27 months long and in 33 months Touro offered the addition of a second master’s degree (in public health).
Touro was the only interview I received of the three schools.
As luck would have it, the weekend I was set to drive the two hundred and fifty or so miles from San Luis Obispo to Vallejo California for my entrance interview I was struck with a crazy virus. In a shear and near delirious panic I drove myself to my in-laws, who lived within a short drive to campus and had kindly offered to take me in the night before the big day.
That Monday morning dawned fiercely bright and unusually cold for a California winter morning. I clumsily scraped the frost from my windshield and in a fever-induced haze I made the remainder of the trip to the college.
The campus was located on an island; an old Naval base in fact (actually the first base established on the Pacific ocean). It dated back to the 1800’s. As I drove across the bridge that first time I was dazzled by the beauty of the decrepit old base. As a lover of old buildings, the site of the crumbling Victorian mansions and even the shipyards framed by the sparkling water only added to my determination to get into the program.
I parked the car and surreptitiously checked my temperature. 102.4. Spectacular.
Nerves had kept me from being able to eat any of the large breakfast my sweet and well-meaning mother in law had cooked up so most of it sat neatly packaged in tin-foil on the seat beside me. I nibbled at some toast and tried to choke down some Tylenol. I could still feel the toast in my throat as I walked with shaky steps and clicky heels towards the building.
I somehow managed to make it through the heavy double doors. Again I was struck by the beauty of the old building. A heavy chandelier hung high in the thick wood rafters and the floor was solid and shiny. The stately old room was lined with windows offering sweeping views of the menagerie of buildings farther down the hill, and if I looked carefully I could just get a glimpse of the sparkling sea.
The room was filled with applicants. Everyone was sleek and polished, holding leather portfolios and tapping pens restlessly. We found our seats and made small-talk. I could see that there were several faculty members on the outskirts, observing us and I knew then that the test had already begun. I glanced down at the “itinerary” I’d been handed and could feel my stomach sinking at the long list of activities. A tour of the facilities. A writing exercise. Personal interviews. A group exercise. Lunch…
Our table started to make small-talk. People hand out various pedigrees. EMT’s. ER scribes. A girl who spends her summers volunteering at medical missions with her father who is a doctor. Another who states it is her second year applying. “I put in 12 applications this year.” Everyone at the table shakes their heads knowingly and I just smile and nod and decide at that moment I’m doomed, but it’s too late, I’m already here.
I’m not sure how I get through the day. I go through the motions with my racing heart and clammy hands, my brain feeling as though it is stuffed with cotton. The Tylenol is just wearing off and I can feel my fever returning as I make it to the last and final bit which is the personal interview. “So,” they politely smile, “please tell us why you think you would make a good PA.”
By this point I’m already convinced I won’t be getting in so my tongue is loose and I feel oddly carefree. I smile, and answer straight from the heart.
Months later when I got the letter saying I’d been admitted, I literally sag to the floor and lay my head on the cold hard concrete. And the doubts began. Was it some kind of mistake? Maybe there was another applicant with my name. Did someone somewhere somehow pull strings? But there were no strings or connections to be had…
I am still asking myself that question on that first day when Professor T launches into her welcome speech. I’m feeling ok until I hear; “If you are single at this moment, I highly suggest you stay that way. You cannot afford a single moment of distraction and I can almost guarantee this program will kill any new or faltering relationships. We discourage our participants from dating. If you’re married, you should pray. It will most likely be the hardest thing you will ever weather together.” Titters around the room at this point, but I can see she is serious.
” During the next 33 months, this is what you are doing. Medicine. That’s it. You will breathe it, speak it, eat it, dream about it. You will for a brief time, become unable to have normal conversations. Don’t worry, this ability will come back to you. You think I joke, but I mean it. Now is the time to warn your friends and family that they will not see you for the next three years. Seriously, do it. You may find you have less when you graduate if you don’t do it now.”
And so it had begun. The ritual of chipping away at us, of molding and reshaping us from a “person” into a “provider”. The centuries old tradition of handing down the inner secrets of the body and of health and of disease had begun. None of us knew it at the time, but they would have to empty out nearly all of ourselves to pour all this in. The things we would see would take up a lot of space.
The process is painful.
It’s also exciting, joy-filled; addictive. You begin to realize things about yourself and about humanity that you didn’t know before. You have to be pushed to the breaking point and back again to know how far you can go. So that when you are really “out there” you don’t completely snap. But the process hurts.
Looking back, I see it all clearly but with new perspectives. I look back as a semi-seasoned provider. As a mother of two. As a wife who’s marriage has weathered hardships. As a Believer. If I could, I wouldn’t go back and rewind or change any of it. But like childbirth, I am so grateful I don’t have to do it again.
In the beginning, we didn’t know any of this. We were just a bunch of type-A dreamers, squeaky clean, and fresh. We were full people who aspired to do good. Students of medicine. The journey had begun.