Launching Resilience: Wellness in Medical Education

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A first-year medical student describes how the power of vulnerability can improve medical student well-being and lead to better patient care experiences.

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First-year medical student Tony Phan

Tony Phan, a current first-year medical student at The University of Texas at Tyler School of Medicine, hails from Corpus Christi, TX, where he was raised by Vietnamese immigrant parents. His passion lies in family medicine, where he aspires to forge meaningful connections with patients and provide comprehensive care to meet the needs of underserved communities. Outside of school, he enjoys exercising, reading, writing, and performing comedy.

The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War period represents a powerful symbol of human ambition and achievement. Oddly enough, this mirrors the demanding nature of medical education and what medical students experience on their journey to becoming a physician. There is intense competition and pursuit of excellence that characterizes both of these endeavors.

Just like astronauts launching into space, medical students also enter a challenging and unfamiliar environment filled with high expectations and rigorous demands. What is rarely ever mentioned is how weakness can be perceived in a group full of high-performing individuals. From my experience, very few medical students are comfortable admitting openly if they fall behind in coursework or are personally struggling. Given the competitive nature of medical school admissions and the caliber of students selected, this would make sense. Consequently, students that struggle are often left to face these battles alone and quietly.

While our strengths and achievements may impress others, we ultimately connect with people through our vulnerabilities. I know that when I am candid about struggles, time and time again, my classmates will let out a sigh of relief and share how they believed they were the only ones feeling that way. And to be honest, it often feels similar to being an ordinary human in a superhuman environment. Medical school is the most interesting bubble to exist in, as at school, we endure countless challenges and obstacles, going where few have gone before. However, the moment we step outside school doors we are looked upon as heroes by our friends, family, and the community — it is such an interesting duality to me.

The humility of being vulnerable and asking for help is a small virtue that can go a long way. In the future, when we are taking care of patients as a provider, there will be instances where we will be filled with uncertainty or doubt. In these moments, it is important to realize that it is
OK to ask for help. This is critical: otherwise, patient care can be compromised. In fact, this very practice can be cultivated during our time as a student in medical school. Solidarity amongst medical students can be forged through these shared struggles, which in turn fosters empathy and understanding.

During their time in space, all astronauts experience weightlessness. Although this can be freeing in some ways, this also presents unique challenges to the human body, such as muscle atrophy and loss of bone density. Adversity can act as a form of gravity in our own life as
medical students, providing resistance and pushing us to grow stronger. We need that gravity to hold us down and strengthen us, otherwise we will float aimlessly in limbo. Adopting this mindset throughout my first year of medical school has enabled me to look at challenges as opportunities, and every opportunity as a means to succeed.

Similarly to how astronauts in space rely on mission control for support, medical students are encouraged to reach out for help when facing challenges in both our academic and personal lives. I found that no amount of studying was going to help if I constantly felt exhausted. By establishing strong support systems, this has helped me to stay happy, healthy, and keep morale up when times get tough.

Here at UT Tyler School of Medicine, our Student Affairs team does a great job at supporting our students in a multifaceted approach. Our Director of Academic and Career Success works with students to excel academically and prepare for residency. In order for us to effectively care for our patients, it is just as important that we prioritize our own well-being and self-care. As such, our Director of Student Wellness hosts frequent workshops and events that allow us to decompress, practice mindfulness, and recharge so that we can continue onward. Utilizing these resources has helped me to not only survive, but genuinely thrive in medical school. 

In the same manner that gravity provides resistance and support to astronauts, challenges and adversity can provide medical students the resistance necessary for personal growth and development. Moreover, as astronauts return to Earth with newfound knowledge and experiences, we too can emerge from adversity with greater strength, wisdom, and resilience on our path to becoming outstanding physicians.

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