What is it really like to become a doctor?

October 29, 2018 — by Neeti Badve and Mathew Luo

Perhaps more than any other occupation, being a doctor requires not only dedication but also a decade-long process of intense education, internship and practice.

A high school graduate on the medical track faces significant hurdles: three or four years in undergraduate work, the MCAT test and an extremely selective medical school application process before even beginning the many years in medical school. The process is so difficult that only 20 percent of college pre-med students actually become doctors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After entering medical school, students must undergo four grueling years, having to study hundreds of pages of material a week along with doing labs, attending lectures and taking exams. During the last two years of medical school, students do clinical rotations, where they train under practicing physicians. This training leads to the final phase of the medical track: residency.

In their residency, students work 80 hour weeks, under the mentor of a physician, without pay and with only one day off per week. Only after three to five years in their residency, along with an optional fellowship, are students finally allowed to graduate and begin work in the medical field.

Despite these challenges, the three alumni profiled here, Sabrina Chen (Class of 2015), Elisha Garg (Class of 2005) and Harry Morrison (an SHS parent) have all gone down this path. Each has found their studies and work not to be a burden but rather an enriching experience and opportunity.


Sabrina Chen: the undergrad grind

“Three days, one five-hour flight, two more 8 a.m.-5 p.m. interviews and one stress test later, I was exhausted,” Chen wrote on Oct. 9 on her blog, The Meaning of Meraki.

Having graduated from Johns Hopkins University last spring, Chen is now taking a gap year to complete her medical school interview process and continue doing research. (She finished her undergraduate studies one year early.)

Despite pre-med’s reputation for being cutthroat and competitive, Chen found her experience at Hopkins to be satisfying and educational without being overly difficult or competitive.

Chen said that she even enjoyed her “weeder” classes like Organic Chemistry, whose difficulty is known for eliminating weaker students and causing them to drop pre-med. She found that her greatest academic hurdle was not her classes but rather the MCAT, a standardized test covering topics ranging from physics to sociology and biology that is obligatory for medical school applicants.

“The MCAT was a huge beast of a test,” Chen said, noting that the popular assumption concerning the MCAT’s difficulty is correct. “Up until I started preparing, I was unaware that the test was 7.5 hours long and would take me 800 hours to prepare for.”

Chen spent her undergraduate years majoring in Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology and Neuroscience while doing research and volunteering at clinics at and around Johns Hopkins.

In one such opportunity, Chen worked for over two years in a clinical electrophysiology lab, using electrodes attached to the scalp to measure the brain waves of children with autism.

“It seemed like science fiction to me, being able to understand things about the brain and its function without surgically cutting into it,” Chen said.

Unfazed by three grueling years in undergraduate pre-med, Chen said that her passion for medicine has only grown since she left SHS.

Chen said she decided to become a doctor in middle school, when she witnessed the death of a relative suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer.

When Chen was 11, her 23-year-old cousin Adam was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer. Opting out of surgery and chemotherapy, Adam and his family turned to a traditional Chinese medicine doctor who promised to cure him with an herb drink two times a day with no painkiller.

“My grief turned into fury on the morning that Adam passed,” Chen said. “The doctor had lied, and Adam’s pain had amounted to nothing.”

Chen decided that she would become a doctor who is “attentive, analytical and grounded in evidence.” After taking a visual systems class through her neuroscience major, she is leaning in the direction of becoming a physician specializing in ophthalmology, the study of medical and surgical eye disease.  

Since graduating from high school, Chen has surpassed three huge milestones on the path to becoming a doctor: taking the MCAT, completing three years of pre-medical classes and deciding to commit eight more years after graduating college to her medical education.

At the moment, Chen is traveling around the country to interview at different medical schools. When she returns, she will be working in an ophthalmology office in San Jose as a medical and research assistant and decide on a medical school by April 30.

Even with a decade of studies and residency ahead of her, Chen is excited about the path she is on.

“In graduate school, I intend to continue participating in both research and community health volunteer programs,” Chen said. “I’ve learned the significance of sympathizing with patients’ illness narratives and interacting with patients rather than the illness. I’ve fallen in love with my specialty.”


Elisha Garg: almost at the promised land

Starting her final year of residency at Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, Garg is getting close to starting her professional career as an ophthalmologist.

“I initially planned to go into something more researched based in health care, but after going to college, I really liked the long-term impacts as well as the short-term gratification from connecting with people that came with becoming a doctor,” Garg said.

Throughout her first two years of medical school at UCLA in 2009, Garg attended classes similar to a high school schedule, with five days of scheduled courses. However, the material was always changing and led to long nights of studying and researching.

“Medical school is not an easy life,” Garg said. “It is a very long road that requires very long commitment.”

Her last two years of medical school consisted of clinical work six days a week. During this time, she worked scheduled shifts under attending physicians or residents of different medical branches and stayed until dismissed, essentially working an unpaid job.

Clinical rotations required long hours, comprising of many overnight shifts, and sometimes Garg worked for virtually 24 to 30 hours straight.

In response to this heavy workload, Garg found that the best coping mechanism was to reframe it as an experience rather than a chore.

“Stress always trickles backwards, so no matter where you are, you are going to think that this is the most stressed you have ever been,” Garg said. “It’s important to take a step back, think about yourself and relax, because as long as you work hard and enjoy what you do, there is no reason to be stressed.”

For the past three years, Garg has continued her medical education at UCLA by choosing to complete her residency there. As a resident, Garg receives direct in-depth training under an attending physician in a specific branch of medicine — ophthalmology, in her case.

Garg has found her experience with residency to be more rewarding than her time at medical school because she is able to work hands-on in her future branch of medicine.

Though Garg is not allowed to work more than 80 hours per week and is required to have an average of one day off each week, this average can still mean that residents work two weeks straight before receiving their day off.

“A lot of times, my days off don’t even fall on traditional weekends. They are odd days in the week, like a Tuesday or Wednesday, but it varies with the program,” Garg said.

Nevertheless, Garg found herself enjoying the journey because she is pursuing what she loves and taking her time to live through it. As Garg prepares to finish her residency next summer, she continues to stay passionate and focused about medicine.

“In all fields, people are so focused on the destination and think, ‘Once I achieve this goal, I will be happy,’ but that’s not how life works,” Garg said. “Satisfaction, fulfillment and happiness come from going through the process.”


Harry Morrison: in practice

As an interventional radiologist, Harry Morrison, father of junior Kaylene Morrison, spends his days reviewing x-rays and performing “keyhole” surgeries, named after their target and minimally invasive treatment. His typical day starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.

Often having to stay late every fifth day not knowing when his shift will be over, Morrison has an unpredictable schedule. Sometimes he has to go back to the hospital in the middle of the night.

Along with surgeries, clinic hours and administrative work, Morrison spends one or two days a week as a diagnostic radiologist, composing reports by deciphering x-rays.

“The teaching and administrative work often spills over onto weekends,” Morrison said. “There often is not enough time during the week to do it all.”

After continuing to focus on math and science throughout his time at UC Berkeley, Morrison intended to become a research scientist; however, his mother pushed him to consider medical school.

She reminded him of how he took care of his partially paralyzed dog throughout high school and helped him realize his natural disposition toward being a nurturer.

“My mother said that the role of a physician would fit who I am,” said Morrison. “Looking back, I think she was right.”

During his time in medical school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Morrison found the first two years competitive and daunting with their fast pace and social atmosphere. To not get caught up in the stress, Morrison made sure to find quiet places to study away from the melodrama of the school environment.

Through medical board exams, rotations and sub-internships, Morrison caught a glimpse of the demands of his profession ahead, waking up at 5:30 a.m to go to the clinic only to stay until midnight, or being on call overnight with too much responsibility in his hands.

Even though the work of a practicing physician and the road to get there are incredibly demanding, bettering the lives of others continues to motivate Morrison to put in the necessary hours.

“It does involve self-sacrifice, of putting the needs of others before your own, Morrison said. “You need to feel that changing someone's health outcome in a positive way is the most gratifying aspect of your job to keep doing it.”

Many students are excited to become doctors due to high pay or financial stability, but Morrison believes that this type of thinking is unhealthy and leads to unhappiness in the profession. Medicine is a profession where people need to be sure and passionate before taking the leap to pursue it; otherwise, they could waste another decade of their lives.

“The material and social standing rewards of being a physician are not sustaining in the long run,” Morrison said. “If you think it is right for you, it is a job for which you will never have a doubt about the value of what you do.”

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