My roommate has been showering in the dark all week. Why? The light bulb burned out. Why didn’t she replace it? Because we had a neurology exam on Friday.

Replacing the light bulb would have taken seven or eight minutes, and that’s seven or eight minutes less looking at brain MRIs, memorizing the primary and secondary neurons of the spinocerebellar tract and understanding the complexities of the vestibular reflex.

This may seem neurotic, not taking time for simple chores like changing a light bulb. But it’s not abnormal for a medical student. Exam week, or the days leading up to an exam (which basically means all days), turns into a face-off between what is absolutely necessary and what can be ignored.

Last week, I didn’t reply to any messages that weren’t urgent, ignored phone calls, left mail unopened, ate stale English muffins and didn’t shave my legs. Having a chaotic schedule has actually simplified my life by cutting out all the unnecessary things that cluttered it. I have learned a lot in my year and two weeks of medical school, but nothing more valuable than the life skill of prioritizing.

A common topic in our “On Doctoring” small group sessions last year (amid the other 40 hours spent on hard sciences, we spent four hours discussing the art, ethics and spirituality of medicine) was the sacrifices we make to study. For many of us, medical school can feel all-consuming, depleting the hours we might have spent seeing the latest movie or reading the Sunday paper at a local coffee shop, or whatever the average twenty-something enjoys.

Looking forward, it’s hard not to think about what else we will miss while studying for boards, doing our surgery rotations or being on call: engagement parties, weddings, baby showers – or finding the time to get married and have babies ourselves. Generally, there’s a fear we won’t have time for anything other than our career.

But, in my deep contemplation (and justified hesitation) in joining this profession, those who had been through it before (those who survived, at least), said it is possible. Having a life outside of medicine is possible.

I also recognize that the challenge of achieving balance isn’t unique to medical students. Whatever your life’s work – building houses, creating art, teaching children, selling real estate, paving roads, growing flowers, writing for a newspaper, raising a family – finding time for what you need to do professionally, and what you want to do personally, is difficult.

Last week, I did find time to talk with my friend who is a math teacher at a local high school. While I was overwhelmed memorizing cranial nerves, understanding the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and differentially diagnosing hydrocephalus, she was equally stressed preparing to teach an Advanced Placement calculus course, using a new textbook, learning a new grading system and moving into a new apartment. Medicine or education, any career defines a person. But preventing it from defining a person’s whole life can be difficult, for student and teacher alike.

So it helps me to think about how medical school has positively shaped my life outside of it: by realizing what is important. I have learned what is essential to functioning (sleep, food, hygiene, exercise), staying in school (studying), staying sane (tea, phone conversations with mom, yoga) and what makes life complete (walks on the beach, wine, writing). Maybe the key to life is feeling fulfilled with the bare minimum, so when there is time for walks and wine, they are savored even more reverently.

Then, I am amazed to realize that, the bare minimum does satisfy me. Even last week, during exam week, studying and showering in the dark, I was fulfilled. I am fortunate to be doing something that I do want to sacrifice so much for, because in the end, they are not sacrifices at all, only lessons in figuring out what really makes life worth living.


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pnms-forum_hayes-070809.jpgKate Hayes lives in Topsham and is a former news assistant at The Forecaster. She is in her second year of medical school at the University of New England.