Before the beginning of medical school, most soon-to-be-students experience a creeping anxiety whether they admit it or not. I found myself feeling the same way one warm night in July. I met up with old friends—the kind around whom there’s no pressure to be anyone but yourself. Even so, I was only partially there. Physically I was present, but my mind was in other places, in classrooms I hadn’t yet seen, in books I hadn’t yet opened, and among people I hadn’t yet met.
I worried about the start of med school. Now, though, I realize that the large volumes of work, the exams, and the assessments were not what scared me. Maybe they should have. What scared me most and scares me still are expectations.
When I entered med school I set high expectations for myself, as most of us do. And I still expect a lot of myself. I want to work hard, do well on exams, and, one day, match to a great residency. But much more than all of these things, I want to become an outstanding doctor. Someday, I’d like to look back on my life’s work and be able to fairly, without self-aggrandizement, call it a legacy. I want to leave my mark on the world through this profession. The foundation for that starts as a medical student; and I worry that if I stumble or don’t get things quite right, I won’t become what I want to be.
There is another expectation, too. A friend who also just began med school wrote about the white coat we now wear and what it signifies. Above all, it symbolizes a responsibility. We must live up to the standards of medicine: uphold professionalism, do good and do it well—and always respect our work, the patient, and their dignity.
Dr. Lewis Thomas wrote of the early medical world that shaped his career. In his world house calls were standard and hospitals were where the sick went to die. He titled his book The Youngest Science. Well, medicine is not so young anymore and we who enter it today must follow in the footsteps of so many before. Isaac Newton once said that if he had seen further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. One day, we will be expected to see further, to peer into the dark cavern of human illness, suffering, and pain, and try to extract healing, light, hope, and life. The giants’ shoulders are there, but we must still learn to balance upon them. What if I can’t?
Then I remind myself that this is too much to ask. I can’t help to carry forward the future of medicine, nor fulfill my hopes for my life’s work—at least, not yet. No one’s asking me to. On this warm evening, I’m a first year medical student, and, tonight, I only need to do tonight’s work; tomorrow, tomorrow’s. That I know I can do.
About Nihaal Mehta
Nihaal Mehta is a first year at Brown University Alpert School of Medicine. Originally from Lexington, MA, he also attended Brown for undergrad, graduating in 2014 with a degree in Health and Human Biology and subfocus in Global Health.
Nihaal’s interests lie in medicine and its intersections: with health systems, policy, and the humanities. In college, he worked as a Writing Fellow, a Teaching Assistant for biology and public health courses, and assisted in the design of a course that examines controversies in medicine. Before returning to Brown for medical school, he spent a year working in consulting on healthcare business, strategy, and policy.