The Art of Finding Balance

Since the last two weeks have been all about metabolism, it seems like a fitting time to reflect on balance, in general. We’ve spent the last two days studying the alternating pathways of protein synthesis and degradation–and what a complex and important pathway it is! I’d love to explain that beautiful pathway–honest-to-God, it’s a daily struggle not to walk up to strangers in the Cheez-It isle at Publix and tell them the Story of Succinyl-CoA–but just for right now, let’s forget I’m a medical student:

Because, the hours since I woke up this morning, I have also been:

  1. a wife who sat down to a breakfast prepared by her husband
  2. a teammate in a case study
  3. a researcher discussing an IRB proposal for breast-cancer research
  4. a dog mom and recipient of many stinky dog kisses
  5. a patient at an OB/GYN practice
  6. a friendly stranger to an Uber driver
  7. a wife went who made dinner for her husband

Some days I am mostly a medical student, but the reality is that a lot has to fit in around that on a weekly basis. My days end and begin with my being a wife, and I am proud of that and grateful for it. There have been moments when I have worried about shorting my medical education–or worse, my future patients–by prioritizing things other than just my “medical studenthood.” But more and more, I am realizing that these other folds of my persona are enriching me to be a better doctor. Here’s why:

Our school organizes guest speakers who come to talk about their struggles with various illnesses. At our latest of these panels, the first speaker started by sharing her hobbies–past and present. She told us about her years as a professional dancer and gymnast. She shared her love for sports, reflecting fondly on her days in lap pools or on soccer fields. As I took notes, it struck me how profoundly important these activities are in forming her identity. Not even 40 years of age, she sees these things as more reflective of who she is than the wheelchair to which she is now restricted. And that is true and right of her–but as a medical student, I was making the mistake as seeing her first as “a patient with a rare metabolic disease.”

Her narrative transition into sharing details of her diagnosis offered us future-physicians this advice: do not forget your patient when making your diagnosis.

“We may not have medical degrees,” she said. “But we have important information, too.”

The guest who spoke next continued this line of thinking when she highlighted how important it was to her to have a physician who understood her as a mother and a wife. Not just knowing that “she has spouse” and “they have children,” but actually acknowledging and respecting that these are major aspects of her identity and appreciating that these roles deepen and broaden her concerns for her health.

After that session, I realized that in one way or another EVERY SINGLE guest speaker we’ve had share their illness/wellness story has remarked on what a difference it makes to be heard and seen as whole human beings. They want to be treated as people, not “patients.”

It seems strange that this should ever be difficult for doctors. Because aren’t doctor patients, too? (Medical students certainly are, as I was reminded today.) The difference between one and the other is only medical school. And I diminish the significance of medical school in that way because it is one of many, many experiences through which a person can be challenged and changed. Some individuals have struggled with illnesses that are more stressful and longer lasting than the entire road to becoming a physician. In many ways, both physicians and “patients” are professionals: the former in identifying the biological mechanisms, symptoms, treatment plans and medication options for the disease; the latter in the actual experience and emotional/physical repercussions of the disease.

So while I may struggle sometimes with finding the equilibrium between my roles as a good student and a good wife, I am learning that both are crucial to my ability to someday be a good doctor, a doctor who sees and treats her patients as people and not as sets of symptoms. In studying protein metabolism, I’ve learned that balance is a very fluid and almost forgiving concept. The set point is accommodating as long as there is equal give and take.

I consider myself so blessed to have so far managed to keep the balance for the last 6 weeks. I want to acknowledge how grateful I am to have an incredibly supportive husband on one side of the equation and a skillfully instructive team of teaching faculty on the other.