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From medicine to the mat: Learning self defense

Stanford Medicine Unplugged (formerly SMS Unplugged) is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

cute karate girl“You hit me!” My sparring partner accused me from behind his hands. We were in a self-defense studio practicing what to do in a mugging situation.

At first I was supposed to mug my six-foot tall, athletically built male partner. He had no problem fending me off safely.

The trouble started when it was his turn to mug me. He stepped past my socially acceptable 3-foot bubble. I panicked. My legs crouched and I lunged forward. My palm drove into his nose.

The mugger stumbled back and suddenly he was my partner again, holding his face.

“Sorry, sorry,” I didn’t know what else to say.

He squared his shoulders and offered to try again. As long as I didn’t hit him.

I nodded, trying to get focused. I was here for a reason. Many reasons actually. It had been a goal of mine to gain some level of proficiency in martial arts since I was little. When I grew up to be five feet three inches and too small to donate blood, I gave up on that particular goal.

Then this summer I spent a month volunteering in a hospital in Uganda. I saw more there than I have had time to process. There were real-life miracles, like when a patient survived after arriving with a blown pupil and an epidural hematoma. There were tragedies that I don’t know if I will ever shake off, such as the small child who died during rounds. There were also preventable snafus, like when one of my fellow volunteers was mugged walking home.

I had decided there were some tragedies I could protect myself from. Additionally, I had taken a year off from medical school to write a novel. The protagonist in my novel is highly trained in martial arts and I wanted to do some field research. When I returned from Uganda, I decided to throw my weight into self-defense classes every Monday and Wednesday evening.

During my first two classes, I collected several of what I considered to be badges of courage. I had continued to practice when I felt mat burns developing on my feet and knees. I had laughed when a two hundred pound man tossed me through the air. My left arm began to draw shocked stares in public with its trail of newly deep, purple-green bruises. The bruises were from kicks I had blocked with ten-inch pads – we were not supposed to be directly hurting each other.

There I was again on a Wednesday evening, bracing myself. I promised not to punch my partner.

He approached cautiously at first. Then more forcefully as he got closer. The man reached his hands around my shoulders. I needed to buy myself enough time to get away. I twisted my torso for momentum and kneed him in the nuts.

I moved a few steps to the side before recognizing what I had done.

My partner was bent over, groaning.

I sighed. Not even half way through medical school and I was breaking the Hippocratic oath and the self-defense studio’s rules. My latest project was off to an interesting start.

Natalia Birgisson is between her second and third year of medical school. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college. 

Image by Clip arts

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