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Medical Education, SMS Unplugged

Permission: Learning to thrive in medicine by breaking my own rules

Permission: Learning to thrive in medicine by breaking my own rules

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

Jennifer D

“Just so you know, I’ll probably start crying any moment,” I warned. I could already hear my voice cracking, a Pavlovian response to this sort of meeting. After all, this would be the sixth faculty member whose office I had cried in since starting med school less than a year before.

“That’s fine. You crying won’t stop us from talking.”

I had permission to cry, so I went ahead and started crying.

I had spent my entire adult life so far striving to succeed in pre-medical courses, clocking long hours in lab, and tirelessly volunteering – all because I felt called to become a doctor. I wasn’t just going through the motions: I loved my pre-med activities and I loved medicine, and my first year of med school only strengthened that passion.

But I was just beginning to fully grasp the commitment I had made. It was unbearable to think that a decade of training would pass before certain aspects of my personal life would be within reach. These worries grew, and I sought advice from faculty mentors – hence, my tearful tour of six professors’ offices. Some offered stress-reduction suggestions: “Have you tried yoga or meditation?” (Yep, this is definitely California.) Others thought I hadn’t found my true passion yet and tried to help me tease it out. I was incredibly appreciative of the time they spent strategizing to make my path more bearable, but none of it got to the root of my anxieties.

In Faculty Office Number Six, my heart raced as I built up the nerve to confess the extent of my treason against the medical profession.

“I just worry I won’t have time for other things. Like my garden…”

But of course, I could bear not growing vegetables for a few years.

“…And getting exercise…”

This is not a plausible problem to cry over. She wasn’t buying it. ‘Just say it,’ I thought.

“…And actually… I think I want to have a baby. ”

Typing these words three years later, my heart is in my throat remembering how it felt to confess to a department chair at the School of Medicine that I wanted to have a baby. Having a baby in med school is Just Not How It’s Done. It is irresponsible, presumptuous, and especially inexcusable for someone in her mid-twenties who could easily wait until after residency. I braced myself for her reply.

“Then why on Earth don’t you have a baby?”

Not the answer I expected.

It goes without saying that med students are under a lot of pressure. Some of it is unavoidable: We all have to memorize biochemical pathways and arrive at the hospital at 4 AM to round on surgical patients. But some pressures are more perceived expectations than actual ones.

The idea that any career aspiration other than the high-powered academic track is automatically inferior, the idea that I must forge ahead to complete my training quickly rather than slowing down to enjoy the process, and of course the idea that one shouldn’t start a family until being “established” professionally: These are notions that perhaps I originally picked up from other people, but that in the end became rules imposed only by myself. I’m so grateful that this mentor (and many others along the way) helped me see the difference and give myself permission to pursue what was right for my career and my life.

Now I’ve completed my first clinical year of med school, and my daughter is four months old. My decision to become a doctor is affirmed hundreds of times over. Far from upending my priorities in life, medical training has enriched my personal life, and vice versa, in ever-surprising ways. Seeing the overflowing support I’ve received from the Stanford community in all these arenas, I can’t believe I ever thought that wanting to live a full life could be a source of shame.

I look forward to sharing more of my journey with you, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to write for SMS Unplugged.

Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez entered medical school at Stanford in 2010. She was born and raised in Kentucky and went to college at Harvard before heading to the West Coast for medical school. She currently splits her time between clinical rotations, a medical education project in end-of-life care, and caring for her daughter, who was born in 2013.

Photo of Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez and her husband, Cesar Lopez Angel, courtesy of DeCoste-Lopez

One Response to “ Permission: Learning to thrive in medicine by breaking my own rules ”

  1. Wendy Sue Swanson, MD Says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey and your discoveries, Jennifer. We all get to determine the best path for balancing our personal commitments with those commitments necessary to fulfill and live out our professional dreams and obligations. Medical education is rigorous (so is parenting!) but both are doable simultaneously.

    Thrilling to hear the support you received in your journey to start your family during medical school. We’re really learning how to sustain and balance our families, our work, our advocacy and our commitments. Keep on sharing your journey (good parts and bad) — I’m certain many physicians (present and future) can learn from you.

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