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Navigating the Slopes of Intern Year

By Dr. E Chin Mak

I’m sitting in my residency library on a gloomy spring afternoon during my trauma surgery rotation. I stare out the window at the shedding cherry blossom trees, and I reflect on how the last ten months flew by. As I’m waiting for a trauma alert to be paged out, another chest tube, another bedside thoracotomy, I think back to where I was exactly one year ago today. I was packing up my bags in Ireland, prepared to move across the pond to a new country, ready for my first full-time clinical training experience and to start a new life. Little did I know how much I would learn in medicine, and in life.

Match Day 2020

I went to medical school in Ireland and graduated at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the world came to an abrupt halt and plans were disrupted, I was stoked to have matched into my first-choice specialty of emergency medicine. I had spent six long, hard years right after high school, learning about medicine and I was finally ready to leave the nest, to make life-changing decisions and be of service to others as a doctor. I moved across the Atlantic Ocean on my own with three suitcases and a backpack and moved into an empty apartment to quarantine. It was a small city I’d only been to once, and where I knew no one. I was alone but I could not wait to hit the ground running, to attend residency orientation, to make friends and to build a life here to call home.

Ugly Christmas Sweater Day
Intern Orientation Scavenger Hunt

There was a steep learning curve during my first six months in residency. It was very different from my experience of medical school in Ireland. For the first time, I was learning how to formulate management plans, how to interact with ancillary staff, and how to balance life outside of the hospital. I did not anticipate that I would struggle with these new challenges. It was my first time to be given free rein to work patients up. Unfortunately, I was told shortly after beginning residency that I was not meeting expectations. I was devastated, as this residency was the one thing I had worked towards for so long. In any other situation, I would have had friends and family around to speak to for support. However, with a busy work schedule, the time difference, and COVID-19 travel restrictions, chances of connection with my community were scarce. I was stuck in my head, desperate to feel competent at work, longing to establish a new community, and missing my old life achingly.

Snowboarding

I have always been impatient at receiving delayed gratification, and though I knew it would take time to find the right footing in this new chapter of life, I did not want to wait. With COVID-19 restrictions and residency schedules it was difficult to find new hobbies, meet new people or pursue a healthy work-life balance. My frustrations were growing, and I was sick of being stuck in the cycle of work and sleep. I decided on a cold winter day to step out of my comfort zone and learn something new—snowboarding. Having something else to focus on outside of residency was refreshing and helped to take my mind off of work. I went snowboarding every chance I could get and when the snow melted, I picked up skateboarding. In due course my comfort level and performance at work improved, I enjoyed work significantly more and no longer felt behind. I made closer friends with my fellow residents and always had someone to confide in or share a joke with, and when a tough day would end, I always had the option to skate and work on something outside of residency.

Transitioning from a full-time student to a resident doctor in a completely new environment has been an obstacle course and will likely continue to be one as I graduate from intern year. If there is one piece of advice I can share with myself one year ago as I sit here reliving my journey thus far, it is the importance of actively crafting a life outside of residency, and patiently waiting for time to exercise its influence. Trauma alert, here now.