Under the Surface: A Narrative on Overcoming Pre-Medical Burnout

April 07, 2020

By: Toma Gina BS, Koscielniak Lily BS, Patwoary Nargish BS, Martinez-Castro Karen BS, Karoubi Susan BS, Sellner Erin PhD – Arizona State University West Campus

Introduction: I was lost my first day of college. I had no idea where to park or where classrooms were located. Fifteen minutes late to my first class, I searched  for an unobtrusive place to sit in the back to distance myself from other students and avoid eye contact with my professor. I believed my classmates were competitors and professors were gatekeepers to success. I assumed my strong GPA alone would open doors. But when I googled “how to get into medical school,” seven new steps popped up. I frantically met with my advisor and discovered that the missing piece of the puzzle was a membership in AMSA, where my journey began. I was fortunate. The chapter at my university was led by encouraging and welcoming people. At my first AMSA meeting, I was informed of a research opportunity of which I took advantage. Moreover, I met a support group of peers. I’ve been blessed to ascend with these peers to positions on AMSA’s Executive Board. Therefore, I was overjoyed to collaborate with them in sharing our individual experiences of not only surviving but thriving.

Melody: I stared at the automatic response to my college application nervously. “Thank you for your application.” Love for learning continuously motivated me, but I was unsure of the future. I spent many late nights pondering my path, always working to get ahead. I kept to myself, afraid to ask for help for fear that my peers and superiors would look down on me.

Music became a way for me to express myself. I could forget the stress I often felt. The melodies provided me with a sense of peace and comfort. Frequently I would listen to a song, staring at the night sky, amazed at its vastness. Other days, I would pick up my guitar, close my eyes, and reflect on my journey thus far. Playing music requires time to craft, to put everything together, even though it may not make sense at first. Musical experiences are unique for everyone: composers, musicians, and listeners. Similarly, the path to medical school can be long and difficult; everyone has their own way to reach the same goal, and no one route is preferable to another.

Freshmen year was the most academically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting year of my life. However, every time I attended an AMSA meeting, I knew I had a community. Rather than crafting a soothing solo, I was surrounded by an orchestra full of undergraduates with big dreams, subject to the same pressures, sacrifices, and fears that medical school entails. Despite our unique career paths, our struggles were universally intertwined. Rather than private dancing to the song in my head, we could all dance to a collaborative opus – sometimes chaotic, sometimes mournful, but never alone in the music.

Snowball Effect: I barely remember my 2020 New Year’s resolution of self-care and relaxation as application season was around the corner. Over committed, I fell further and further behind in rigorous coursework, leadership responsibilities, volunteering, patient care, and work. Despite doing more than I can handle, I worry that I am not doing enough. I scroll through many “Accepted!” posts on Instagram, but somehow it doesn’t seem that could ever be me.

The pre-med bloggers are right, I begrudgingly admit. Burnout is real, and I was naïve to think I could dodge it. Lately it seems like each day is a repeat of fatigue, stress, and unhealthy amounts of caffeine. I often wonder if I am the same person, I used to be underneath the pressures and to-do lists. But the sense of higher purpose—a roaring heat I can feel in my chest—convinces me I must snap out of this cycle of self-neglect. At the end of the day, we are people first and providers second. I was aware that as a doctor I would need to focus on the needs of others, but I never realized the importance of my own needs in the patient-provider equation. I can now congratulate myself on being mindful of my needs and prioritizing self-care, rather than feeling guilty for being “unproductive” by spending time in a way that doesn’t contribute to my curriculum vitae.

Guinea Pig: I tackled my academic career with limited knowledge of next steps. I worried about how my cumulative GPA would be perceived by admission committees. Was it high enough? Would they know that alongside each grade was a sacrifice made, tears shed, and learning barriers overcome? I became anxious, constantly overthinking.

As the eldest sibling and first to pursue an American education, I was not privy to the unwritten procedures of school and neither were my parents. Everything I did, my parents learned with me. This knowledge would then be shared with my siblings to ease their college experiences. Simply put, I was the guinea pig upon whom the experiment of medical school was being conducted. Scholarships? I become aware of them as a high school senior – too late to apply for many. Medical school: as long as I had my diploma, no big deal. MCAT: another type of CT scan? Why didn’t I ask for help? I wasn’t too proud to request assistance; I just did not know the system or the intricate journey to becoming a healthcare provider. And because I didn’t know; I didn’t know what to ask.

Finding AMSA was the first and most influential event in conquering the learning curve regarding medical school application, funding, and resources. Now, as I continue to learn about more opportunities, expectations, and resources, I am able to return the favor to new AMSA members traveling my path: a first-generation American student headed to a successful career in healthcare.

Reflection: Our chosen course is not easy. The way to manage these obstacles is through self-reflection and reliance on community. I challenged myself to seek gratitude in today and solidarity with my community toward the unknown of tomorrow. I find peace in the melody around me and those who dance to it. Gratitude and community can melt the snowball of burdensome expectations before it becomes an avalanche. Thankfulness in opportunities created and pride in opening doors for peers allowed this guinea pig to step off the running wheel leading nowhere. My family – biological and chosen – are my heroes. I no longer feel isolated, for I now know all who travel this journey beside me are friends and not foes.