“I don’t think there is any medical school that will give you a degree given your physical limitations. You may want to start looking at other possible careers, because you are not going to be a doctor.” This is what my pre-med advisor said to me as I sat in his office after 3 years of preparing for medical school. This was hard to hear, and to be honest I was a little pissed off at his bluntness, but as someone who has overcome numerous obstacles to achieve things that no one thought I could, I was not going to give up on my dream of being a doctor based on one person’s opinion. So, determined to prove my tactless advisor wrong, I picked out 20 medical schools, and I wrote them each a lengthy email describing my interest in attending their institution and my disability. Over the next few weeks I heard back from 15 of the schools, and they all said word for word almost exactly the same thing. Each school said that my disability would in no way affect my ability to get in or matriculate, and that they would make “reasonable accommodations” to work around my disability, but that they would not guarantee giving me a degree. They would make the decision as to whether I had met the “technical requirements” for graduation only after I completed the program, and they could see how much assistance I required. This meant that I could spend several years and tens of thousands of dollars completing medical school, just to get to the end and have them say, “Oh, you can’t palpate an abdomen or hold your own stethoscope, so no M.D. for you. Thanks for playing.” There is no way I could commit that amount of time, money, and energy into an endeavor where the outcome is a gamble, so as hard as it was, I had to abandon my dream of becoming a doctor.
We have all felt this pain of realizing that something you had worked for and dreamt about for so long is never going to happen. It is almost like a small piece of you dies with your dream, and you know you will never get this piece of you back. In order to work through your pain and loss, you must allow yourself to grieve. I definitely experienced this when I finally accepted that my goal of becoming Scott Drotar M.D., acclaimed, world renowned neurologist, was not going to happen. At first I was in denial, which is why I sent out 20 emails despite my advisor telling me what would happen. Then I was angry. I had worked so hard for so long preparing for medical school, and due to something I have no control over, I was never going to see the fruits of my labor. After the anger subsided, I made a brief stop at bargaining with thoughts like, “Maybe if they knew I was pursuing a mostly hands off specialty like neurology, they would be more likely to give me a degree.” Then, I moved on to depression. I was pretty down for several months. I wasn’t suicidal or anything, and I went about my life as I normally would, but I was more subdued and melancholy than my typical, chipper self. I no longer had any direction in my professional life. It was not until the following Fall semester of my senior year that I found my way out of this depression and was able to move on to acceptance.
Since I had been pursuing both my major in mathematics and preparing for med school, I had to take a lot of credits my first 3 years of college, carrying 16 or more credits every semester. By my senior year I had already met all of the requirements for my math major, and since I was no longer pre-med on top of that, all I had to take to graduate were a few, piddly university requirements like a fine arts class and something in the social sciences. So, my last two semesters I took the minimum 12 credits and the easiest courses I could find. One of these cake courses was “introduction to psychology.” It had one open book test, no homework, and only met twice a week. It was perfect for a senior looking to enjoy
his final year of college as much as possible. Early on in the course the professor gave an overview of the various branches of psychology, like social psychology, cognitive psychology, and of course quantitative psychology. Even though it was only briefly mentioned one time, it got me interested. I had wanted to do neurological research as a doctor with a math degree, and this was a combination of studying how people think and statistics. It seemed like a good fit that could get me to the same end result without having to go to medical school. As I was still stuck in my no med school funk, and I had no idea what I wanted to do, I set up a meeting with my professor to discuss quantitative psychology further. From the moment I left her office after that meeting, I knew that quant was where I belonged, and within 2 months I was doing research with the Notre Dame quantitative psychology department and looking at what graduate programs I wanted to apply to. I had broken free from my depression and accepted the fact that I would never be the next Gregory House M.D., but I would be able to reach the same career goal of doing neurological research.
I will never forget that meeting with my professor. I sat in her cramped office surrounded by journals and books as she explained quantitative psychology to me, told me about some good programs, and even put me in touch with the quantitative psychologists at Notre Dame. As she was informing me about this field, it seemed more and more like it was a perfect fit for me. It would utilize my love for mathematics, allow me to do research on the human brain, and let me indirectly pursue my mission to help people through my research. This was a way for me to do everything I had hoped to do as a physician, but without having to go through the rigors of med school. As I slowly realized this, it was like the personal rain cloud that I had been under since giving up on medical school lifted. In finding this alternative to med school, I was able to finally accept that I would never be a doctor and complete the grieving process with a positive outlook.
Looking back at this period in my life, I wonder why I didn’t investigate alternative solutions to reaching my career goals before that day. Whenever I am faced with a new and daunting obstacle, my first reaction, which I talked about in my post, “I Can’t!”, is typically to ask myself, “What is stopping me from reaching my goal? What can I do to get around it?” This is what I did in this situation, but the problem was that I was so focused on becoming a doctor, that I lost sight of what my real goals were. I had turned “becoming a doctor” into my end goal, when in reality this was just another step in reaching my actual goals of doing neurological research and helping people. So when it became apparent that I was never going to be a neurologist, I thought that this was one of those few times in my life where no matter how hard I tried, my disability was going to prevent me from achieving my dreams. These situations where my disability gets the best of me are always difficult for to handle, and that is why I lost perspective and had to let myself grieve in order to heal. This sense of grief and loss was so strong that I was blind to the fact that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
This extremely trying time in my life is a great reminder of the importance of making sure you are pursuing your goals and not just one possible means of achieving those goals. Just like I had equated “becoming a doctor” with “helping people through my neurological research,” you too can get so focused on the road you have laid out to reach your end result, that you start to see the journey as the destination. It is important that from time to time you take a moment to ask yourself, “What am I hoping to achieve? Why?” Keep asking yourself “Why?” until you get down to the primal, core belief or value that is motivating you to reach for this goal. In my case, this baseline, motivating factor was using my gift with mathematics and interest in the brain to help people. It didn’t really matter what path I took to get there, so long as I met my goal. This doesn’t mean that the journey is not important, but merely that you need to make sure you don’t confuse the particular route you have chosen to achieve your dreams with the dreams themselves.
In the physical sciences, a function where there are multiple ways to get from point A to point B is called a “state function.” That is how you should think about your dreams and long-term goals. You hopefully are in the moment and self-aware enough to know where you are now (point A). You have already dreamed big and know where you want to end up (point B). All you have to do realize your dreams is connect the dots, and since our lives are “state functions” how you do this is completely up to you. Better yet, you can even start with one path, decide it won’t work, backtrack and regroup, and then try an entirely new route to your goal. What big dream are you chasing right now? Are you really pursuing your dream, or have you lost sight of it? Take a minute every day to ask yourself whether your behavior is in line with your core beliefs in reaching your goals. By keeping your goals in the crosshairs and maintaining perspective, you will save a lot of time and energy you could waste in losing sight of what you actually want. This will not only help you avoid grief, but it will also bring you happiness.