The back of the medal

December 8, 2015 § 9 Comments

Yesterday, I received an email from a new doctor in England whose brother is a 2nd year student here at Semmelweis. She was curious about exams here, about the demand placed on us, and said that it seemed more difficult than her studies in England. 

I received it at a funny moment. I was in the middle of crying over my notes and being so thankful that they were in plastic sheet covers. What a coincidence that I should come across this photo this morning:

I don’t consider myself to be a very emotional person (generally). The only time you’ll see me cry is while listening to certain songs or watching movies; usually ones that touch on mortality (like About Time). I AM a perfectionist. Though I’d like to think I’m a recovering perfectionist, if there is such a thing. I’m also, as my mom once wrote in one of my birthday cards, “intolerant of inadequacy and incompetency”. She wrote that after a story about how I freaked out on a plane one time because my younger brother Christian was coloring outside of the lines in his coloring book. On top of this, I demand a lot from myself. I set impossible goals and when I don’t make them, I get really upset with myself. Studying medicine seems like the perfect fit, right? The perfectionist and the infinite subject.

I know it seems that I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent (or five), ones detailing quite personal things about me, but I promise they all feed into a point. 

Exam period is hard. That’s nothing new. I’ve written about it many times before. However, I usually write when I feel a spurt of inspiration, sort of as a means to motivate myself through the hell of the moment. I may convey that I’m stressed, that I’m nervous, that I don’t know if I can do it. 

When I read that email, I felt so connected to her brother. It’s so easy to isolate yourself in moments of weakeness, to feel like you are the only one feeling what you are feeling. I usually add on to it by thinking that everyone else is doing fine and that is just me that can’t handle my emotions.

I started to wonder if that comes across in the posts that I write during exam periods; these specific chunks of the year where I am a full-blown emotional wrek. It’s not that I want to portray weakness or that anyone really needs to witness this wholly irrational version of myself, but more that connection; that moment where suddenly you feel normal and truly believe, even if only for a second, that everything is going to be ok. Sometimes Skjalg will joke around with me and say, “Buda-B doesn’t get scared” or “Buda-B doesn’t back down”. If I’m seen as super strong or if people are under the impression that I always have control, I’m flattered, but that’s just not the truth. 

Let’s take a look at the ugly truth. This morning I was supposed to have my semi-final in pharmacology. I’ve been studying well (or so I thought) through the semester. I finished my notes for the topics last week. I started reviewing the topics we’d covered at the beginning of the semester. I started building my wall of insanity:  

But pharmacology is memorization. And for some reason, I hit a total block. I started obsessing over some topics, not trusting my notes, searching through 20 different sources saying slightly different versions of the same thing. As time passed, I started to panic. I was spending 3 hours memorizing 1 topic. I calculated that if I somehow brought that down to 20 minutes per topic, that would still mean 16 straight hours of memorization. 

Yesterday, I got 2 topics done in 9 hours. I felt hot and cold, exhausted and overstimulated, motivated and depressed, and I could feel my entire circulatory system throbbing in my body. Tears left me dead by 22:00, so I decided to call it a night and wake-up at 3:00 to continue; to salvage what little chance I had left. What happened? I started studying, but got only half a topic down in the first hour and a half. I felt nauseous but decided to force down some food. Then I distracted myself with some YouTube videos while I ate. Then I started thinking about all the topics I couldn’t answer. All of them. At the same time. Into the shower I went, hoping that the steam would someone distract me from my hyperventilation. It didn’t help. I can’t do this, I thought to myself, I really, really can’t do this. 

There were still 40 minutes before Skjalg’s alarm was supposed to go off. No way I was waking him up before then. So I got into bed and stared at the dark ceiling while observing the stress race through my body. 

When his alarm went off at 7:00, I leaned in and said, “Hey, I don’t think I’m going to go today.” He responded with a simple “ok” and lay with his eyes closed for a few more moments. “Why not?” he asked. I began to explain that I really, truly wasn’t ready, that I didn’t want to go and get lucky on my topics, that I wanted to learn it properly so that I know it long term and not just for now. “I think that sounds like a good idea,” he said, eyes still closed. With that, I started sobbing. I felt such a sense of relief that he supported my decision. I was so scared that it was a hasty decision being made out of fear, that it wasn’t rational in any sense, that I was just succumbing to weakness. 

That’s just it: we are complete messes in exam period. Some of us lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling for hours without almost so much as blinking. Some of us sneak out to the corner store and literally jump at the site of another human being. Some of us cry about anything and everything. Some of us are complete roller coasters. And some of us are like a storm, calm in the beginning, but with a dark strength that grows larger and larger until the storm hits. That’s me. 

I hope you’re still following me at this point. It’s been a long, long day. I made a really tough decision that feels like a really strong decision made in a really weak moment…one that my brain is still trying to define as weak. My thoughts are scattered, my eyes are throbbing and I should be sleeping so I can get up early to review for tomorrow’s surgery exam. 

So why did I write this? Because I wanted to show that there is a side that doesn’t get published. That no one likes to talk about. That many would say shouldn’t be talked about. That the weak moments are there and sometimes they are the only thing we know. And yet, we keep pushing forward. Exam after exam. Semester after semester. And we can feel so alone while we do it. We can be so quick to think that everyone else has it so easy while we have it so hard. I don’t want people who read my blog to think that I always have everything figured out. That I don’t go through tough moments. I do and I know them very, very well. But there is such a beauty in that weakness. Not during, of course, but after. Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. 

As I lay in bed this morning, in a pool of my tears on Skjalg’s chest, I gave him one of the most heartfelt “thank yous” I’ve ever given. “It’s ok baby, it’s the back of the medal”. I’ve never heard that expression before and hearing it then in that moment that fit is so perfectly, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s so easy to feel isolated, especially with social media being what it is today. You compare yourself and your life to everyone’s highlight reels. You only see what others want you to see. So, I wanted to share with you a glimpse of the “back of the medal”. A side Skjalg knows all too well. A side that we are probably all too familiar with in some way or another. 


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§ 9 Responses to The back of the medal

  • And this is why you are loved. Fight for it B! Fight real hard. You will make it. Keep going!

  • Antonio Fiorentino says:

    I told you from the beginning that Semmelweis has made medical school many times the hell it is in most parts of the world. Many good physicians practicing today would not be there if it were up to your school. I do not understand the reasons or motives for it. I know the world needs more physicians even if they get through as “C” students. Not a selected few over-stuffed and mentally exhausted ones. But you made it so far and will likely hold on to the end. Again I repeat what I said early on: no medical degree is worth the ruin of your physical health, and the exhaustion of a beautiful mind.

  • Dermot Quinn says:

    I’ve realised this is my son you are referring to.

    I worry about how you all cope with the stress of these “killer”exams and how many times you can bounce back from failure.
    Good luck with your own studies.
    You are so close to achieving what you have worlked so hard for.
    Best wishes,
    A worried father!

  • Dan quinn says:

    Hi B,
    I’m the father of the 2nd year student you refer to in this blog.
    My worry is how do you cope with the stress of these “killer” exams? It seems constant!
    How many times can you bounce back before you are crushed?
    You seem close to achieving your ambitions and I wish you the best in your remaining exams.
    A very worried father!

    • Buda B says:

      Hi Dan!

      I remember asking my teaching assistant in anatomy the same thing during my first year (when she was in 3rd year) and she replied, “You just get used to it”. I don’t know if that has been 100% true for me, but I will say that I have finally accepted that I will make it through at one point. The path there just may not be as smooth.

      It is definitely constant. The demand here is high and sometimes it feels impossible. I’m learning that the best thing is to be around other people, especially other students. It reminds us that we’re not alone and keeps our stress in perspective. I don’t know if your son studies at home or not, but I really recommend studying at one of the libraries or cafés (students are absolutely everywhere in this city). If he needs some recommendations, I have some. Otherwise, studying with a friend is good. Or just being close to someone who understands what he is going through first-hand.

      As for bouncing back, we just have to keep pushing through, making sure that we are evolving our styles and not repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

      I actually wrote a post almost 3 years ago to the day about advice I got from an older student. It was advice that fueled me through that exam period and that has followed me these past 3 years:

      In the end, we’re all – each and every one of us – complete nutcases during exam period. I know that we all scare our families and friends and sometimes they feel they need to rescue us. But it’s so, so normal here. And that unity is what can get you through.

      One thing that has really, really helped me, is that thought that this is making me a better doctor. That the hard questions now are preparing me for the future. That I’m somehow being molded into a much stronger version of myself, one that can impart bad news to a patient and be the strength that they need. I’d rather be broken down and built back up here in medical school than out there.

      All my best,

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