Learning to Survive



The alarm blares at 0330. Instantly your heart starts to pound– “Do I have the strength to make it one more day?” You rush to tend to the wounded, the sick. You then stand at attention and answer to your superiors about the status of the infirm. You need to have all of the data in hand or your will get a loud dressing-down. Finally you’re released to perform all of the housekeeping duties required… and it’s still only 7AM.

You hope that you’ll get a chance to eat at some point, but the alarms go off time and time again, signaling the need for your assistance with yet another sick or injured person. ¬†Inevitably this happens while you’re in the middle of a hurried meal, and all you can do is dump your food in the trash and rush out to meet the wounded.

You are constantly assessing, analyzing, bringing in to your care those that are broken and releasing those who have been healed. This goes on all day and all night. You pray for a spare moment to lie down and close your eyes, but the alarms are not to be denied.

Morning comes and you’re still there, tending to the sick. The cycle repeats itself into the late afternoon, when you’re finally given reprieve until the next day. You stumble towards bed, wondering if you should take some time to eat. The answer is usually no. Sleep is too precious to waste.

You chose this path to serve, to be better than yourself, to inspire and be inspired. You struggle forward hoping that when you get to the end it’ll all be worth it. Someday you’ll be one of the superiors and the trial by fire will be over. Or will it?

Is this some form of military boot camp or war zone MASH unit? No, this is medical residency, and rather than lasting several weeks, it lasts a minimum of 3 years, more if specialty fellowship training is required. Then come decades of serving others.

The emotional, physical, and mental toll that this training takes is not to be underestimated. You’re not only sleep deprived, you’re routinely facing pain, illness, death, and despair. In the back of your mind there’s always a nagging little thought… “what if I make a mistake and hurt someone?”

Why “Survive?” Because to get through training such as this, that’s what you’ve had to do. You’ve had to put your job first. Your health, your family, and your friends were pushed to the bottom.

Yet while this kind of life is able to be endured for a finite period of time, it’s not sustainable. Our psyches can only take so many hits. You may think that watching someone die doesn’t affect you, but it does. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it eventually does.

To have a life of joy and meaning we need to go through this trial by fire, but we must eventually recover in order to thrive and share our wisdom. The pain and struggle doesn’t end after residency. A life in medicine gives us a front seat to the drama of human existence as long as we continue to practice. Our psyches are exposed to grief and sorrow until we’re raw, but we must patch ourselves up with moments of compassion and keep going. We must follow the lead from the military and realize that we are all a family. We need to lean on each other. We need to stand together. We need to support each other. We need to keep each other strong in order to answer our life’s calling… to heal others.