This week I said goodbye to my boyfriend of over a year. Without much introduction, here are my reflections on love in medical school.
During orientation week, we did an exercise arranging cards with values on them. “Hard Work,” “Family,” “Money,” “Good Friends,” “Self Confidence,” “Security,” “Prestige,” and so forth were printed on each of about 60 paper cards. We had to select and rank our top 10. My top three included health, having a meaningful life, and love. At the time and until quite recently – if I am being completely honest – I probably held love above all else.
I took pride in my ability to balance a long-distance relationship with the demands of school. Nearly every weekend included trips to the airport, whether flying myself or picking up my boyfriend on a Friday evening and dropping him off on Sunday. I managed to study, cook, exercise, and enjoy his company each weekend. Medical school was part of the routine Monday through Friday, but no more central to it than his finance career. Likewise, as with work colleagues and friends, I distanced my social life from that of my medical school peers. Favoring the company of my partner, I skipped class trips to Las Vegas and Mammoth, block parties, and weekend social gatherings. I believed that, in the long term, time with him would be more valuable.
After only my first nine months of medical school, my values have shifted. The cards “contributing to my community” and “feeling my work really counts” now top the list along with “using my mind” and “helping others.” Love is still important, but has been outranked by other priorities.
I have been peripherally aware of this shift within myself, but unable to place what exactly was different. It manifested itself in strange ways – one day I would have a short temper, the next feel down, and the one after that be effusive and warm. I was resisting what I believe now was the inevitable realization that love would have to give for me to be successful in my current position along the path to medicine.
Specifically, I realized that I wanted and needed to become a member of my medical school community outside of class. Though I had worked incredibly hard to get into school, I never really put effort into getting to know my classmates. It is only recently that I realized that I had been ignoring the most valuable asset of my medical school education: Though UCLA may boast some of the most famous and accomplished faculty in the world, it also has some of the brightest and most creative students. I learn from their whiteboard drawings during small-group classes, posts on Facebook clarifying a confusing point from lecture, and meticulously detailed color-coded notes. Together we spend hours in lectures and labs, eat meals between and after classes, sweat at the gym, and feel solidarity in a sense of shared suffering before exams. On a deeper level, we have self-selected into medicine, thus fundamentally sharing a desire to preserve and improve human life. We pour ourselves tirelessly into learning and genuinely enjoy the very substance of what we are studying. Sometimes it is difficult to discern where our conversations about school leave off and other topics of interest take over – so frequently do they overlap. Why not then also share in a celebratory beer after exams or a weekend barbecuing on the beach with these people, to whom I relate, from whom I learn, and by whom I am inspired?
It was only during the past month – in the last block of my first year of medical school – that I decided to actively invest my time and efforts into being more a part of my class. I joined our a cappella group, celebrated Shabbat dinner, and went dancing for the first time this year with classmates during a chance weekend that I had to myself. Suddenly on my own, I realized that I had completely defined myself by being in a relationship and was wholly socially dependent on my boyfriend.
Subconsciously, and later consciously, I began pushing him away – first missing phone calls, then asking to skip a weekend camping together. It was tactless and tacky, and after being deeply committed for over a year the level of respect I showed him was not commensurate with what he deserved. He rightly identified my behavior as selfish and egoistic. Indeed, it was, and will continue to be so long as I am still learning and adapting to the all-consuming lifestyle of medicine. Ironic that for me undertaking a profession of lifelong service to others requires a period of utter self-absorption, but I believe that in order to be a great doctor and colleague I must first know myself and feel deeply secure of my place in the profession.
For the first time in my ten plus years of dating I do not have a partner; however, I am now enjoying falling in love all over again – this time with being a medical student.