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What do you do?

5 min read

I’m a medical student. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Medical student/writer would probably be a more accurate answer.

How I got here

I didn’t start my life wanting to be a doctor. When my primary school teachers asked me about my ambitions, I said I didn’t know. When I went to high school, my answer changed a bit. I just gave a random occupation, and my answer varied every time you ask me. “What do you want to do for a living” is a dumb question to ask a kid. I mean, how would he know what he wants to do? He doesn’t have enough experience or exposure yet.

I decided I wanted to enter medical school when I was 16 or so. I didn’t know why to be honest. I loved maths, but I didn’t see myself doing numbers for a living. I hated physics, but I loved the challenge of understanding something abstract. I tried to dig deeper into the core concepts and would grapple for hours over something as simple as Newtons’ First Law of Motion. The kind of grappling that Richard Feynman would do. And chemistry felt like punishment for me. I also found language, arts, and history dull.

But I did love biology class, bar the parts where you learn about plants. I mean, who wants to know how plants suck up water? But human anatomy was where my eyes lit up, and my brain paid attention in class rather than talking to my friends about football.

Those were the things that drew me into medicine. I need a job where I’m not merely living for a paycheck. I wanted a sense of fulfilment. I wanted something that had meaning and gave meaning to others.

Fast forward five years later and I have to say how naive I was. I realised medicine isn’t the only way to “save lives” and get a sense of fulfilment. If I were a wealthy banker and donated 10% of my salary to charity, I could save more lives than a doctor ever could. If I were 16 again I would have explored other options. It was in hindsight that I realised entering medicine to save lives isn’t exactly a practical endeavour.

I did some research, though, to be fair. I read articles, I read When Breath becomes Air, I watched Scrubs (apparently it’s the most medically accurate show there is). Back then, we didn’t have Ali Abdaal’s vlogs so my research was somewhat limited. I also went for a shadowing session at my nearest hospital. I saw a lot of things from trauma to your normal fever and I told myself: “This doesn’t seem too bad. I can see myself doing it.” The doctors I shadowed are still my heroes to this day. It was at this time that I decided to take the plunge and just enter medical school.

It feels to me at that moment that medical school doesn’t sound so bad. I wasn’t entirely 100% sure about entering it, but it feels like something I can do. And the fact that it’s a well-paying job with stability (open to debate) is a perk as well. Of course, there are four reasons why one would want to enter medicine: Money, Fame, Power and Chicks.

Where I am now

Let’s go two years back when I was learning pre-clinical medicine. It felt like school all over again—lots of things to memorise. And most of them were fluff. No one needs to know whether a bacteria is coagulase-positive or not to become a good clinician. Throughout the two years, I had the mindset of “let me just pass my exams comfortably and move on to my clinical years”.

I did quite well on my exams thanks to active recall, spaced repetition and Anki. I wasn’t stressed by my exams, bar the times where I’m sleep deprived of having too many campus commitments.

Although I studied effectively, I had the “I want to be the best in class” mindset. I used the time I had saved from studying effectively to get more studying done. My attitude has now changed because I realised how the extra 10% isn’t worth the trouble and could be better spent doing other things that can make me grow as a person, like reading and writing.

When lockdown started, I started to gain perspective on medical school. If I were to have my funeral, would I want to be known as the student who studies all the time? Or would I want to be known as someone who does what he loves and have meaningful relationships with his family and friends?

I still did well in my exams, but I had more fun thanks to dropping said mindset. I diversified my identity. I’m not just a medical student. I’m a medical student who writes, codes, reads, and plays sports every day.

So what am I doing now? I study, read, and write. I manage this by blocking time out of my schedule for it every day. Sometimes I don’t get to do it entirely, but I stick to the plan and reduce the scope.

My plans for the future

I recently read about the idea that doctors can only treat the patients you meet. You are only one individual, so no matter how better you are than your peers, only the patients you meet will benefit from this. A study found that a doctor saves an average of 20 lives throughout their career. Therefore, a doctor who makes the most significant contribution makes contributions that can scale.

A good example is Samer Nashef, a cardiac surgeon that combined statistics with his medical expertise to create a risk model for cardiac surgery called EuroScore. This model has been implemented worldwide and has saved millions of lives by improving success rates and reducing unnecessary surgery.

I want to maximise my impact through writing. Therefore, I’m learning how to write right now so that once I’m a doctor, I can start writing about healthcare.

My method for increasing my impact might change in the future. I might try out programming or something else. Whatever it is, I want to maximise my impact by doing things that can scale.

I don’t know what I want to specialise in yet, and I’m not sure when I will get to that conclusion. I trust that it will come naturally to me as I progress in my medical journey. I do, however, have an affinity towards neurology.

My plans might be different in 5 years, but I’m guessing that’s a good thing. If who you were a year ago is the same as who you are now, then you haven’t grown as a person.

My motivation for all of this is taking action. Most of us think that we need to feel motivated to take action, but that’s simply not true. Action creates motivation. It’s like a virtuous loop. You take action, get motivated, and this feeds your actions. The trick is to make the action as simple as possible, such as opening your notes or opening your writing app, and trust that motivation will come along.

To be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing. If someone were to ask me what I do, an accurate answer would be “I don’t know”. I’m just trying things out and seeing what sticks on the wall. There’s the saying that nobody knows what they’re doing; they’re just winging it—even your superheroes.

P.S. A big thank you to Write of Passage friends for feedback on this article: Adam Tank, Ayomide Adebayo, Shirish Pai, Efty Katsareas

Medical School


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