Residency is a period of your life during which you undergo intensive training to become a specialist in a field of your choosing. Yea, I love the sound of that, because it automatically frames the approach I’d like you to have while reading this post. Prior to this experience, I had heard so many converging and diverging opinions about what a residency in surgery is, most of them being geared towards the negatives and hardships, as a sign of warning or “Beware of Surgical Residency in the US”! But today, I can’t be grateful enough for having had this experience of being with surgical residents for a period of time and sharing into their daily living. That was the only true way I could make an opinion on this topic for myself, and here are 10 key lessons I learned.
1. During Residency, you are being trained to become someone greater than who you already are.
And think about it: you go to a specific program “to be trained” in a specific speciality. This implies that the goal is to make you become a person greater than the person you were when you started. Now, people often think that training is limited to “academia”, and thus ignore and pass on any opportunity to be trained at life: in reality, while you’re learning to take care of your patients, you also have to deal with a) families who need reassurance that everything is going to be OK, those who will soon learn that their child will be permanently disabled from a failed procedure or those to whom you’ll have to break the bad news of their father passing. And then, there are b) colleagues who pass on their frustration to you or those who are not as efficient as you’d like them to be. Let’s not forget the c) Chiefs and Attendings who hold you to high standards of performance as you climb up in the ladder of your training, and any other entity that you may encounter.
That being said, you learn to take blows and receive them with grace, you learn to assess your reactions to situations and apply critical thinking in emergent situations, and you learn to solve problems on the spot. All these are opportunities for greatness.
2. Surgical Residency Training Will Challenge You.
“What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you”. One of the reasons why this type of residency training is so “tough” or “difficult”, has to do with the fact that it challenges parts of you that were never challenged before, and pushes you to greater heights. A surgical resident told me “training would stretch you mentally, physically and emotionally to levels that you would not expect”. And that is completely OK. If you’re not pushed, you will not grow, you will not learn and you will not achieve your full potential. So do not resist the force.
3. You “need” a Support System.
Getting into residency is almost like getting into a marriage. You can’t get there alone, with no one to back you up, or catch you when you fall. Ever wondered why there are “witnesses”, best man and maid of honor at weddings? Because those are the first people that are supposed to be there for you when you can’t be there for yourself, and re purpose your focus so that you can get back on track when the boat is rocked. During residency training, you are married to medicine. To your patients. To your colleagues. To your attending physicians. To your chiefs. And so, you need support outside of that circle. You need someone to talk to about your good days and your bad days. For some people, that support system is a wife, a husband, an amazing bae. For me, that support system (during my experimenting days) is God. Whoever it is, pick your support system, because you cannot bear the weight of 5-6-7- years of surgical training alone. A lot of people have been burned out, and you don’t want to be one of them.
- Know Who to Rant to
This goes hand in hand with point #3. Let me make something clear to you. Someone who shares the same struggles, the same fight or the same enemy as you is not necessarily your friend. In life, you will meet people who you connect with because you’re at the same stage in your life, or you share the same difficulties and you can relate. That does not mean you are friends and you get to share your deepest pains, secrets or complaints with them. At most, you are colleagues or allies. And that is again, why it’s very important to have an outlet, a person (outside of work) who you can share openly with. You need to have someone who has your back. For me, again, that person is God. In fact, I’d talk to God in a prayer, anytime my mind felt like it was going south. I’d scream, yell or cry, but I’d let it out to God.
- Be a Team Player
“Do onto others as you’d like them to do onto you”. When your co-resident falls, you pick him up. No questions asked, no strings attached, no venting. Everyone makes mistakes, and cohort training requires solidarity and unity. Even though we’re trained to be competitive and to always outdo one another, you need to learn how to be a team player and really work for the greater good of the team. Because at the end of the day, you can fly high if you fly solo, but you won’t go very far.
- The First Year in Residency is one of the Hardest
This is no news, it applies in all fields: just like the first year teaching, the first year away from your family, the first year in the army, etc. It’s the groans of new beginnings, but you get used to it because you learn how to embrace it and manage it.
- It Gets Better
I find it very enriching to talk to residents at different stages of their training, because it gives you an idea of the mindset at different levels. The point of view of a first year resident is not the same as that of a third year, 5th year or final year. With that being said, no matter how hard years 1 and 2 were, some residents kept going on, and they had a reason to. It gets better, or you just get better at it!
- You don’t need clothes
The first things that I told myself after a few days in the unit was “I will have to sell all my clothes” and “I can live on five outfits per year”. You literally stay in scrubs for more than half of your day. Everyday. For the entire week. This means that technically, the only time you’ll need a new outfit is to go to church on Sunday (or Saturday), or to grab a bite with friends one of those nights. Otherwise, you’ll live in scrubs for the next 5-6-7 years of your life. Same style. Same size. Same color.
- You Learn to Appreciate Small Blessings.
After my first week on the ward, I never thought I’d ever appreciate seeing my family, taking a warm shower or having a homemade meal like I did on the weekend of the first week. When you’re always on the go, sleep for 4 hours, eat quick meals and take quick showers, you really do learn to be grateful for the days when your meals, showers and sleep time were longer. Intense training has a way of making you be grateful for little things that you so often take for granted. Wait, you will see.
- Sometimes, you wonder what’s the hardest: being the doctor, being the patient or being the patient’s family.
There have been so many situations when I have had to ask myself that question, but I am yet to find the answer. What I found, however, was that I so often was swamped in my own internal complaints about how sleepy, hungry, tired or annoyed I was that I never got the time to think about Mrs Jane Doe who is anxiously sitting in the waiting room, wondering, hoping and praying that her husband survives that life-threatening surgery; Mrs. Janette Doe who comes to see her disfigured daughter in the intensive care unit everyday, fighting for her life after a severe head trauma on her way to school, or Mr John Doe, whose only sister just got paralysed from a motor vehicle accident. Sometimes, you wonder if you really have the worst part.
If you’re planning on doing surgical residency training in the USA, this article is for you. Do whatever is in your power to secure an observership or subinternship in a program of your choice, so you can actually “experience” the life of a resident. Nothing compares to living this yourself. Whilst it is advisable to listen to people who have walked that walked and talked that talked, do not be discouraged by the negative opinions or warning signs: everyone has a different experience.
PS: I am not a lifestyle or career blogger. I am a travel blogger, but I felt the need to share this piece on this amazing blog, to all those who can benefit from it. With every post I write, I always aim at encouraging one person to pursue their dreams. If you want to feel inspired by my travels and be motivated to live life to your full potential, make sure you check out my blog and subscribe Here . Feel free to email me! 🙂