By Dr. Mythri Anil Kumar
It is a common refrain that “things get better.” I now strongly believe that is true, but I didn’t always. I went through many ups and downs on my journey in medicine, such as dealing with homesickness, weathering professional and personal hardships, and trying to make good impressions and forge meaningful connections as an introvert. I navigated all of this before I understood that of course things will always, eventually get better—because when you are at your lowest, there is only one way to go: up.
I vividly remember the last time I looked at my mother before going through immigration at the Hyderabad airport. She appeared as a tiny speck waving at me vigorously. I, on the other hand, was on the verge of tears. I probably lost a pound or two from crying my eyes out throughout the flight, but all the grief and yearning disappeared the minute I touched down at O’Hare airport in Chicago. Instead, I found myself brimming with excitement. Over the next few months, I would go on to rotate through different hospitals as a visiting medical student and eventually join the Cleveland Clinic as a research fellow. That year was one of the best times in my life. I made new friends, worked with an inspiring female mentor and, most importantly, I was mothered constantly; I acquired three “moms” of different races and ethnicities – and an “aunt” that I will have for life. Leaving this position to start residency was bittersweet. Indeed, residency turned out to be a life-changing challenge.
My first day of intern year was chaotic. I arrived an hour early and pre-rounded on my patients. I didn’t know how to navigate EPIC (an electronic medical record). My presentations were haphazard, and I was beating myself up over it. For the life of me, I couldn’t formulate a decent note and did not know how to use the dictation device. That day was a never-ending blur of disappointments, mistakes, and difficulties. My senior resident was a saint who patiently guided me and even drove me home. I’m forever grateful to him and to my attending for being so kind during my first week of residency.
As an international medical graduate, everything is challenging: setting up a home, managing finances, and understanding the culture both inside and outside the hospital. It can be even harder to deal with when you are an introvert. Personally, I found trying to fit it and acclimate to clinical practice after a research year to be profoundly difficult. I never felt at home. I only answered questions directed at me and never really blended in. The concept of small talk was elusive to me. At the outset, I got repeated feedback from almost every attending that I was a good intern with a good fund of knowledge, but that I needed to speak up. It was frustrating. I was disappointed with myself constantly. Moreover, I was terribly homesick. Adding to the physical toll of intern year, there were also moments where I experienced immense emotional struggles. I teared up the first time I transitioned an elderly gentleman to “comfort measures” for end-of-life care by myself. The month in the COVID ICU was mentally draining. Innumerable patients died, and the heart-wrenching conversations with families about the poor prognosis of their loved ones was utterly heartbreaking. My all-time low was juggling the tribulations of intern year while going through heartache in my personal life.
But, as I stated earlier, the funny thing about hitting your lowest point is that it’s an upward journey from that moment on. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. The sky is the limit. Towards the latter half of my intern year and throughout my second year, I grew increasingly confident and became more efficient. I decided that I didn’t want to blend in—I wanted to be myself. I learned that I could be an introvert and still forge meaningful relationships with patients and colleagues alike. If it involved patient care, I spoke my mind conscientiously, and was gratified to be acknowledged as a good resident in response. I truly started enjoying medicine and rediscovered my passion for the field. Treating rare medical entities, caring for patients with complex issues, being thanked wholeheartedly by patients and their families, sharing camaraderie with fellow residents, bonding with attending clinicians, surviving a devastating pandemic together as a team: all these formative experiences made me stronger. Moreover, I consciously decided to call my parents regularly and realized that I could lean on them no matter what. Seeing my aged parents this past summer, after nearly 3 years, was a joyous and unforgettable memory, and one that I will forever cherish.
I also came to understand the importance of physical as well as emotional well-being. Upon the suggestion of several colleagues, I shelled out the money to buy a Peloton bike. While this left a sizable dent in my bank account, it was one of the best purchases of my life, hands down. The Peloton community is incredibly supportive and is rooted in the concept of self-love. Riding to thumping music, listening to instructors cheering throughout the ride and experiencing the euphoria after a good workout was rejuvenating. I became more mentally and physically strong, and this was reflected in all aspects of my life. I truly began to embrace life knowing that I was resilient and could withstand adversity.
As I start my third year of residency, I’m beyond excited for my colleagues and myself. I cannot wait to see where life takes all of us. While I haven’t figured it all out, I’m filled with hope and gratitude. My journey is not unique; it is one experienced by American and international medical graduates alike to varying degrees. We all endure the same hardships—relocating, adjusting, surviving residency, health issues—and bond over them. To those who are particularly struggling, it is worthwhile to remember that life goes on and everything does get better, perhaps not immediately, but eventually. I can assure you from personal experience that it really is going to be okay. More than okay, in fact.