As I forcefully exhaled against an errant strand of hair, I wished I were anywhere but there. My hands – covered in formaldehyde – had been rendered useless for any purpose other than dissecting the femoral nerve, and the stray hair drifted back into my line of sight. I had been hunched over the metal lab table for nearly three hours, and my shoulders were beginning to feel the strain.
I was hungry, tense, tired, and cold, and my nasal passages burned from the harsh chemicals. I couldn’t wait to finish the dissection and get back upstairs to my stacks of lecture notes, decks of flashcards, and an overflowing email inbox that surely contained something time-sensitive.
It wasn’t until I had arrived back at my desk that l realized something. By being so preoccupied with the feed-forward loop of what I had to do, what I hadn’t done, and how much time it would all take, I had completely missed the point of the morning’s lab. I had learned nothing about the femoral nerve.
It wasn’t the first time in my life I had found myself too focused on either the past or the future to process—and appreciate – the current moment.
Professionally, I have experienced this while waiting my turn to present a patient in a group, too focused on not forgetting any of the pertinent details in my own presentation to listen to those of my colleagues before me.
Personally, being stuck in the omnipresent LA traffic allows my mind to wander to places in which it has no authority—it can boomerang from my future residency match to an awkward interaction two weeks prior just in the span of changing from one freeway to another.
When I was introduced to the concept of practicing mindfulness, I approached it with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve always had a very active mind—wouldn’t spending more time with it be counterintuitive?
But mindfulness is not engaging further with the perpetually unfinished to-do lists those of us in medicine are so familiar with. Mindfulness is intentional attention. It is acknowledging thoughts as they arise, and then letting them fade away. For me, it means being aware of what is happening around me at the current moment, and not running away with what I have to do later that day, that week, or that year.
After trying a mindfulness program on a phone app during my second year of medical school, I realized that this practice is a totally free, low-tech life hack. All it required was a few minutes a day, and it’s changed the way I live not only as a medical student, but as a person.
By being present in the moment I’ve been able to check in with myself—to see what is working well and what deserves extra effort to challenge or change.
I now attend anatomy labs with purpose, seeing them as hands-on opportunities to learn the required structures rather than impediments to my other study plans. I eat lunch with friends more often, enjoying a few minutes to connect with my peers instead of rushing through a meal in front of my flashcards.
In the hospital, I’m better able to focus my attention on the patient I’m examining without thinking ahead to how her extensive past medical history will make my write-up that much more complicated, or the feedback I will receive from the attending physician observing me.
And perhaps most practically of all, traffic jams are no longer situations of maximal stress.
I like to think of mindfulness as an addition to my toolbox as a future physician. In addition to the knowledge of pharmacology and physiology I will use to help my patients, by being present with them – leaving my worries of unfinished checkboxes on the other side of the exam room door—I hope to gain a deeper understanding of their disease processes and create better informed treatment plans to help them meet their goals.
So Instead of focusing on the uncertainty of the future or the struggles of the past, I challenge you to focus on the daily experiences – and meaningful encounters– of the journey itself. Medical training is long, and if you focus on speeding to the end of the road at the expense of the mile markers, you might just miss some amazing detours. Turn up the music, and enjoy the ride.
About Jessica Prescott
Jessica Prescott is a second year medical student at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. Prior to beginning medical school, she graduated magna cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry. While at Duke, she performed nephrology research and coached a Girls on the Run team in Durham. She grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and enjoys being back on the sunny West Coast. When not studying or learning in the hospital, she can be found running loops around the Rose Bowl stadium and discovering which beaches in LA have the least expensive parking. At the moment she hopes to pursue a subspecialty of internal medicine, but is open to being surprised by where her medical school journey takes her.