Professional School: A time to do what is important to you

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Less than one month after I started dental school in 2004, my father suffered a heart attack, and it was determined he would need quadruple bypass surgery to treat the impaired blood flow through his coronary arteries.

I was in school three thousand miles away from home and felt totally overwhelmed with the amount of material being thrown at me in a class full of the smartest people I had ever met. I talked to my family frequently, my dad assured me he would be fine, and I convinced myself it was an acceptable decision not to fly home to be with them during the days and weeks that followed.

We got lucky. Everything went fine with his surgery and he recovered decent cardiac function, but it was sobering to see how easily I had gotten sucked into the microcosm of professional school and could have missed seeing my own parent alive for the last time. With that bit of perspective, I knew there had to be other things I had missed out on because I was busy fretting about some detail of school.

Don’t get me wrong – it is important to try hard in school, to keep up with reading, and to meet people who can serve as mentors, but you need to make sure the pressure doesn’t reduce you into being someone other than yourself.

There are always a few people in every class who seem to either know or remember everything, but most people do struggle with one thing or another.  And if not, more power to them.

One of the advantages of a mostly Pass/No Pass (or Pass Now / Pass Later) system is that it really does allow you some flexibility in the timing of your refined understanding of difficult topics. If you’re struggling in class, do seek help early and try not to get too down on yourself about it. You will almost certainly catch up with enough practice and repetition, and you’ll get better at scheduling the other things in your life that still let you be who you are.

As you move through your professional training, your personal identity and your professional identity will become more and more intertwined, and you should see what you discover about your personality as you interact with more patients in different settings.

Keep in mind, there is not just one way to be a good professional, and an important part of what should develop during your training is your own identity as a clinician. This includes, but is not limited to what specific fields might interest you within your profession. You also get to make decisions about how you interact with your teams, auxiliary staff, whether you shake hands with patients or hug them, and importantly, how your career fits in with the rest of your life.

Other people will often tell you what did or did not work for them, and certain people will say “finish your training, then do the life thing,” while others will say, “life is going along and there’s no perfect time, so just do it now.”

I believe the truth lies somewhere in between, and that your first decision as a professional is how you approach the balance between your life and the professional world where there is always more work to be done.

You need to think through the specific costs and benefits of life decisions, and it’s ok for the decision you make to be different than the one recommended by an advisor.

In retrospect, you will make a few mistakes, but part of this process is learning to make reasonable decisions without all relevant information. Learn from your mistakes to spot similar situations as they come up.

You might even consider having a go to person with whom you check in regularly (say monthly) to discuss your personal and professional goals, listen to challenges and successes, and help each other talk out loud through the life decisions you are facing. Needless to say, last year when my father had a bout of flash pulmonary edema from congestive heart failure (from which he also recovered), I was on a plane to be at his bedside within an hour, and my professional life has gone on.

Overall, eat well, exercise, sleep, spend time with friends and family, work hard, take good care of patients, read a bit of professional literature on a regular basis, be nice, don’t do illegal or stupid things, and check in with yourself and a trusted friend to see how you are doing. Healthcare is a great field. Enjoy it as part of your entire life.