On winter solstice, or becoming real

December 2011. X marks the spot. In exactly 18 months, this journey will be complete. But now is the time that I begin to get nervous. Residency is easy, relatively speaking. Easy, you may ask? After these blog posts about grieving, hardship, long hours, and sacrifice? But how?

Ah, my friends, I have painted the picture too grimly. It is only with time that my lens has cleared and reveals…life in the real world. Residency offers us much protection. We have strict hours restrictions. We still go to school, and get paid to do it. We always have an attending to call on for help. We always have the excuse that we are “still in training” when there is something we do not know. We are protected from much of the litigation that floods the world of medicine today.

It is the life of an attending that is difficult. As emergency physicians, we bear the weight of people’s lives on our shoulders – and we do it alone. And, in some sense, we harbor responsibility for each bad outcome that happens on our watch, in our department. And – if we are good – we ask ourselves, again and again, “Was this something I could have prevented, if I had acted quicker, smarter, better?” And we ask, “Was there something I missed?” And we ask, “What if?”

There is a quote from a children’s story that I will cite here…

“What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

– Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams

Residency is all about the process of becoming real, of walking farther along the path to “doctor-hood” – the path to adulthood. The path to making one’s own decisions and standing by them, come hell or high water. But you realize that this journey to “real” has happened only after it is complete, all finished, in the blink of an eye. Real creeps up on you that way, nice and quietly, and then it is there forever.

But, as I look back, the Skin Horse was right – Real is a process, bit by bit, day by day. Over the years, residency has taken its toll, the wrinkles are there, my hair has been loved off, and the memories of all of my patients – through life, death, and everything in between – are present in me, subconsciously affecting my decisions at each critical turn. And real hurts, too – more than you would imagine. No one ever said it would be easy. It is scary sometimes. Sad sometimes, too.

But it is real, after all.

I still remember when one of the bravest attendings I know told me that she had hoped, in those first few years after residency while driving to her single-coverage overnight shifts at the hospital, that she might get into a minor car accident just so that she could have a reason to call out that night, not go. She is one of the bravest people I know. And even she had a hard time becoming real, in the beginning.

People ask me what I want to be when I grow up, now that I will be graduating in 18 months and interviewing for jobs in less than a year, and I look at them, perplexed. I know what I do not want to be when I grow up – a medical resident. That is for sure. But what do I want to be? Maybe a real doctor, maybe not. Maybe a writer, but that will never pay off my monstrous loans. Maybe a teacher, I have always loved to teach. Or maybe I just want to be me for a while, and be free for a while, not a slave to my occupation.

I always used to have an answer to this question. In high school, I wanted to go to college to be pre-med. In college, I wanted to be pre-med to go to medical school. In medical school, I wanted to go to residency. And somehow, after all these years of a nice, clean and cut path to success, I find my feet faltering at this next step. Part of me is hesitating, does not want to venture on anymore.

The more time passes, the farther I travel, the less I know. But maybe this is all part of the process…I am not real yet, after all.

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