As a high school and a college student, I was single-mindedly focused on becoming a physician. I would be the first person in my family to finish college, and I planned on becoming a doctor so that I could support my parents, who worked hard hours. Their work ethic pushed me to work hard, and I promised to make their lives easier as soon as it was feasible for me to give back.
I went to a college that I thought would best enable my career as a physician, which also happened to be the one that was the farthest from my family. I missed many weddings and funerals; I celebrated and mourned on my own because I didn’t want to take the risk of falling behind in school and my research. My philosophy was that working hard now would allow me more freedom to be with my loved ones in the future.
After graduating from college, I decided to stay on the East Coast so I could cut my teeth at the National Institutes of Health. I was reluctant to take time off for vacations or to come back home over the holidays because I thought I could get more work done if I had stayed.
It was actually during my time in clinical medicine, when I witnessed different end-of-life scenarios, that I began to realize that my approach to work and success had been backward. For a lucky few patients, the choices they had made was evident by the abundance of family and friends who came to visit them to fill them with stories. Their rooms overflowed with sadness but also with immense love.
In the last few pages of a person’s life, no one regretted that they hadn’t worked hard enough for the next promotion or pay raise. Instead, one of the greatest sorrow among patients and their families was not spending more time with each other when they had the chance. Everything paled in comparison to the human relationships that had blossomed in the course of one’s life.
These events made me reflect on my own trajectory. I had crossed mountains beyond mountains. After high school, the name of the game was doing well in college, and then it was getting into a good medical school, studying for the step exams, and getting excellent grades during the clinical year. After each hurdle, there was another challenge to surmount. Next, it would be residency matching, perhaps fellowships, and then finding a suitable job, maybe trying to make partner at a private firm or a professor at an academic center.
There might never be a perfect time for me to spend with my loved ones. Based on the vagaries of the match process, I have no guarantee that I’ll be able to live near my family after medical school. Even if I lived close to home, residency might keep me too busy to visit my folks. Perhaps my family members or I would fall ill during the lengthy training process, or maybe some other unexpected tragedy would befall any one of us. Life is precious as it is precarious.
Physicians are often overwhelmed with clinical responsibilities and paradoxically have less time to put their life lessons in action by spending time with their families. Earlier generations of physicians have spoken of times in which they had to get back to work almost immediately after giving birth or missing important life celebrations. The most important lesson that I learned in medical school was that I have to seize every reasonable opportunity to spend time with my loved ones since the future is never guaranteed.
After my third year, I began a research gap year in which I made more time to visit family members and to make time to catch up with close friends. At times, I felt guilty about not getting more work done. As a side-effect of nearly a decade of being career and future-orient, I had forgotten how to enjoy the present to the fullest. But soon enough, I began to loosen up, and I cherished the new memories being made. They would be more valuable and memorable than any incremental progress that I would make over Thanksgiving or Christmas break plugging away on my research.
There will always be more work, but I have a limited amount of time that I’ll be able to spend with my family. I’m still not sure what the golden ratio of work to love looks like (and I don’t think anyone does), but I think I’m moving in the right direction.
Stanford Medicine 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.
Yoo Jung Kim is a fourth-year Stanford medical student and the co-author of What Every Science Student Should Know, a guide for aspiring college STEM students. She also writes for Doximity and U.S. News and World Report.
Photo by marcisim