You’re 15 years old. It’s careers days at school and various people are giving you talks, presentations and hand-outs about their jobs, and your careers advisor is telling you which GCSEs you’ll need to do. You’re suddenly faced with the enormity of the decision: what do I do with my life?
Medicine was always the path mapped out for me: my father is a brilliant doctor who loves his job, my uncles and aunts are doctors and dentists, and I come from an immigrant Sri Lankan community in which it often feels the only respectable vocational fields are medicine, dentistry or law. Well, sometimes accountancy and engineering are ok, but only if you didn’t get into Medicine or Law – I am only half joking here.
When you see how deeply this idea is engrained into Asian culture, you can understand why it’s so hard for me to tell my family that I’m leaving (a job which I have yet to do…), but I don’t think it’s just an Asian thing. Everybody knows that medicine is a noble profession, and when you tell people you’re a doctor, many of them still look at you with a sense of awe and respect, and in today’s society, achieving your ambitions no matter the consequences is seen as a good thing. I suppose I fell in love with the idea of being doctor, of being like my dad: a life saver, a game changer, an inspiration.
Somebody once told me that becoming a doctor is a high price to pay for being good at science. I was good at science at school, but then I was good at everything – a straight A student – which meant I never learned the connection between being passionate about what you do and being good at it. Passion breeds genius, and I couldn’t see my genius: in science I was fine, but I was outstanding when it came to languages.
I remember so clearly the day I tentatively told my parents that I wanted to read modern foreign languages at university. They were worried that there were no job options for language graduates unless you wanted to be a teacher. I guess it was just a lack of knowledge on their part about how the job market works, having only ever been exposed to a very limited variety of professions, but I was only 17 at the time so I believed them. My own ignorance about the working world frightened me, and I thought it best to follow the advice of my elders. They actually recommended dentistry at first, but I was not taken with the idea of looking into people’s mouths (I admire my dentist uncle for being able to stomach it!)
So medicine it was. I applied enthusiastically, and a few months later, got offers from Bristol Medical School and Leeds Medical School. Cambridge turned me down, to everyone’s dismay but mine. I had secretly sabotaged my Cambridge application by opting for one of the colleges with the fewest places available for medicine in the hope that I wouldn’t get in. I didn’t want to go to Cambridge – I had only applied to Cambridge in the first place because my teachers thought I should, such was my need for approval.
I have to state here that I do not blame my parents or teachers for advising me as they did. The told me what they knew and helped me to the best of their ability. It was just unfortunate that it didn’t work out.
The first two years at Bristol were what we knew as ‘Pre-clinical’, as they were devoted to pure science. There was a small amount of clinical teaching thrown in, but it was mostly hard core lectures on Anatomy, Biochemistry, Physiology, Epidemiology, Embryology and other subjects I slept through.
As time went by, I began to miss feeling academically brilliant. When you go to medical school, you make the unpleasant transition from the top of your class at school, to feeling like a very small fish in an incredibly intelligent pond. Oh yes, I had been good at science at school, but here were people with eidetic memories, with natural mathematical flair, with research skills I could only dream of. I felt very mediocre. I never failed an exam, but I always got a ‘Pass’, and never a ‘Distinction’ like the brightest students in my year. I worked very hard, and envied those lucky few who seemed to go out clubbing every other night and still did better than me! I began to doubt my intelligence.
I had a very difficult patch in second year, when I felt so unhappy that I went back home to my parents, determined to give my studies up altogether. I am actually very glad they turned me round and sent me back again, because at this point it was the stress of exams that was getting to me, rather than a desire to change careers. Going back and getting the pass mark helped me to appreciate how resilient I was.
I was also reassured by the people around who said ‘you don’t need to be academically brilliant to be a great doctor.’ My dad was always telling me medicine was more of an art than a science, and he is right in many ways.
“It’s all very well being a bookworm, but when it comes to patients, you need people skills, compassion, detective work, communication.”
I still believe this to be absolutely true, but I miss being an academic geek.
‘Just get through pre-clinical,’ he said. ‘The clinical years will be better because you’ll actually be on the wards.’
I took a year out, as many medical students do, to do a BSc in Medical Imaging at Leeds University. I’m still a little vague on my reasons for doing this – I think I was stalling, trying to run away. I hated it. The complex mathematics and physics involved baffled me, and I came out of it with a disappointing 2:2. I felt some success when I presented my dissertation at a national conference, but the mind-numbing boredom I went through to collect the data for that project made it seem hardly worth the effort.
Then it was back to Bristol, to complete the long awaited clinical years. People were right – they were better than pre-clinical. I got to be in a hospital and see how things worked, and I got to speak to patients and their families which I genuinely enjoyed. While following the doctors around, I felt (as most medical students do) that I was getting in their way a lot of the time, but I was glad to get the chance to see what medicine was all about.
I knew however, in my heart of hearts, that I didn’t really belong in this world. There was something about it that I just couldn’t get on with, but it was difficult to express that to my tutors. ‘Just finish the clinical years,’ they said. ‘It’ll be better once you’re working.’
The clinical years went by. I was lucky enough to be at Bristol Medical School at a time when they ran an Erasmus exchange for medical students, and got to spend six months at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris. My professors warned me that my exam marks would most likely drop when I got back due to the fact that I was going to a different country, with a different language, different medical school, different curriculum and completely different way of doing things – but I didn’t care. I just wanted to speak French. That should have been a massive warning sign right there, but I didn’t see it.
‘Just do your Finals,” I told myself in the mirror, “Then at least you’ll be qualified.’
I still held onto the hope that actually being a doctor would wash away all my doubts, that somehow things would be different, and I would be different. And with the recession biting, I was glad to have a secure job waiting for me at the other end of university.
I sat Finals. I qualified. I got my first choice of job in East London. I still didn’t feel complete.
‘Just finish FY1, at least then you’ll have a full registration.’
I started my FY2 year. Things were getting worse. I was becoming deeply unhappy. I wanted to leave.
‘No don’t leave now,” said my supervisor, “Just get into a specialty training programme. Do your exams, finish your training and become a GP. It’s only three years. Then you’ll be a completely qualified GP and stand in much better stead.’
Three years of misery would stand me in better stead for what exactly?
I know my family, friends, tutors and colleagues have meant well with their ‘just finish’ advice. They want me to be in a good position and credibility in life, and I do too. The ‘Just Finish’ mantra has come as much from my own voice as it has from others, and I have learned much from my experiences. I wish I hadn’t done a BSc that was so wildly at odds with my entire personality, but I am glad I finished my medical degree. It was tough, but it was an achievement, and a great degree to have.
However, there comes a point when it has to stop. I have jumped through hoop after hoop, hoping there will be something good on the other side, convincing myself it will be worth it, but each time all I can see are more hoops and more exams, and each time I become more exhausted and disheartened. It is easy to stay on the conveyor belt in medicine – to keep going for the sake of keeping going, to do the next thing simply because it’s the next thing to do, and not because you really want to. I don’t want to look back one day and wonder how I got there, having been so obsessed with the destination that I forgot to enjoy the journey. I don’t want to ask myself one day why I spent my youth doing something for everyone else but me.
I was planning to finish my FY2, but then I got sick, very sick. As I was lying in hospital contemplating my attitude towards the future, I realised I had subconsciously assumed that I would have plenty of time to do the things I wanted to do, and that the people around me had reinforced that idea in my head by saying things like, ‘you can study your languages when you’re pregnant and have nothing else to do’ or ‘you can write your novel when you’re retired.’
My illness made me face the idea that I may not have a tomorrow. It sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. I began to think about the things I wished I’d done, and finishing my novel was one of the things that stuck out so strongly in my mind. Was I going to slip out of this world with that story untold, those precious words unspoken? Time was suddenly precious, and unbearably limited.
I am aware that finishing my FY2 would make it easier for me if I come to regret my decision to leave, and eventually come back to medicine. My supervisors are going to say that when I come crawling back to medicine, my current deviance will make it harder to find a training post, look bad on my CV, maybe even prevent me from practising again without some sort of retraining. They will berate me for having no plan B. Is this bravery or madness? Who knows.
It’s also going to be really hard to tell my parents.
Once upon a time, these arguments scared me, but not now. Frankly, I do not believe I will ever come back. Medicine is a wonderful and noble career, but it’s not for me. I’ll be scribbling stories, dabbling in poetry, brushing up on German grammar, grappling with Sinhalese vocabulary and maybe discovering Spanish, Italian and Hindi.
And one day I will be back in Paris, gloriously unfinished, and speaking French.