Eight years ago this month, I entered the hospital for the first time with the label "MD". My assignment was a prestigious transitional year internship at a large private/academic hybrid hospital. Amongst my rotations would be Internal Medicine, Surgery, ICU, and some electives.
My internship year was wonderful. I relished in the new freedom of managing patients and writing orders. I thrived on the stress of the endless to-do lists; each time I checked a box on my paper, I got a sense of thrill. The learning curve was so steep, and I became addicted to finding ways to be efficient. I enjoyed my co-interns, the staff, and the attendings. At the end of the year, they voted me Intern of the Year!
Then I started my residency in anesthesiology. I had done no anesthesia rotations during my transitional year and had instead chosen to focus on getting exposure to things that I was likely to not see much in the future. The change was abrupt and was not exactly smooth. Like the swipe of an eraser on a white board, all the positivity and excitement quietly vanished. The sheer volume of material to learn was overwhelming, not to mention the technical parts of the job – placing IV’s, preparing and dosing drugs, mastering the anesthesia monitors and ventilators, patient positioning, and the delicate dance of the patient consent process that is unique to anesthesia. Every day was a great battle to keep wits and stay calm while learning the academic and procedural aspects of the specialty.
As the fall months spread into winter and the days became shorter, a gloom washed over me. Rushing to work in the dark and returning home in the dark… was this what I had signed up for? Were other residents feeling the same way? How did I compare? These questions never really get answered since we don’t work together in the same OR. Come wintertime, performance evaluations from faculty started to trickle in. Some comments were positive, but the negative ones cut deeply into my motivation and self-esteem. But I was the "Intern of the Year"; what was wrong with me?
I continued to struggle with procedures, and my In Training Examination scores were well below average. I suffered from incredible fatigue and knew deep down that something was wrong. It took many months, over half of my residency, to figure out what it was: a pituitary macroademona had taken residence in my sella and was wrapping its tentacles around my optic nerve. I was going blind and didn't even notice! Within a week after my MRI, I was on the OR table being anesthetized by one of my attendings. What followed was a long hospital stay and complications of hyponatremia requiring readmission. After a long period of healing, I returned to residency and finished my training.
A stay in a hospital ICU will change you forever. My achievement record during residency, despite having been crowned Intern of the Year, may have ended up being quite lackluster... but my experience as a patient was a priceless learning experience that I'm grateful to have had. It helps me connect with my scared and vulnerable patients every day, and it is a constant reminder of how lucky I really am. And as an attending, I now thoroughly enjoy the practice of anesthesia.
I'm shortening and simplifying a very long and detailed story, but I write this to inspire all the new interns and residents with their sights set on perfect ITE scores, accolades, votes, and awards. In the end, none of that matters. Your years of training will hold a mix of times of difficulty, times of gratitude and times of great learning. Do your best to navigate these times with balance, and make sure to take care of yourself!