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Running This Race

Every doctor knows the familiar feeling of studying for exams: that unique combination of cabin-fever (from staying home studying), stress (of juggling service requirements and calls, with family time and studying), the realisation of your inadequate knowledge and the “aah, I just don’t care anymore lah ” feeling.

Some months ago, in a fit of madness brought about by exam fever as I was preparing for the first of the exit components, I signed myself up for a half-marathon. I have no idea why; I can only plead temporary insanity. To give some context here, I am not the fittest person in the world – I enjoy some types of sport (preferably non-sweaty, non-cardio) and I hate running. In fact, one of my friends told me last year that “my grandmother runs faster than you ”. As soon as the exams were over I regained my senses and was properly horrified at what I had done, but resigned myself to my fate and reluctantly drew up a training plan as the race day drew closer.

As a non-runner running my first half-marathon, I can’t help but be struck by the similarities between my Residency journey and my running experience. As such, I present to you now the psychological journey of a Resident, juxtaposed against the journey of a noob’s first half-marathon:

The Half-Marathon Residency
Before the race
You spend your time in one of these two states:

  1. This is so exciting! Let's train hard! I can't wait for race day! (Occuring 20% of the time)

  2. This was a stupid idea. Why did I ever sign up?! I should have just signed up for art class instead… (Occuring 80% of the time)

Before the start of Residency
You spend your time in one of these three states:

  1. Oh my, I can't believe I got in! This is the dream! I need to buy books and study hard! I can't wait to start. (Occuring 50% of the time)

  2. Oh no, what if I flunk out? This was a stupid idea. I should have applied for anaesthetics instead… (Occuring 30% of the time)

  3. Not thinking about Residency at all (Occuring 20% of the time)
The first mileAnother 12 miles to go – can't think about that now. Breathe slowly… why is everyone else overtaking me? The first month Why is there so much to learn? Yikes, and so many exams to go – better not think about that. Can't breathe, trying not to drown. Is everyone else picking this up faster than me?
2.5 miles inLooking good! Just survived the first 20%, and I don't feel like I'm going to die.

Yay! Keep it up! Remember, sweat is only fat crying, and pain is just weakness leaving the body…
End of the first yearWhoa, just survived the first major exams. This is ok! We are doing great! Just gotta keep this up… for another 4 years.
The half-way markI cannot for the life of me remember why I thought this was a good idea?! I could have been normal like everyone else and just watched a movie or something but nooo… :( Third year
Why did I do this to myself? I could have been normal. Picked anything but medicine and been done with exams, and have the weekends free :(
10 miles inJust a couple more miles to go! This is nothing, we are more than three quarters done. Fourth year (post MMed, pre Exits)Just one more year to go! I love my job. I am in the right place in the right time and this is where I'm meant to be.
The last 2 milesAhhhh, it feels like I have been running forever! Can't feel my feet anymore. When this is done, let's just go on a long holiday and sleep for a month... The last 2 months before exitsAhhhh, it feels like I have been studying forever. Can't remember what it's like to have a life, see my family, or to sleep. When this is done, let's just go on a long holiday and sleep for a month…
After the raceSadly there was no holiday, but back to the daily life of a Resident. After Residency???
(Mystery box. Author has yet to attain this state)

The funny thing is, while you run there is a lot of time to think. Especially if you are running 10km or more, that’s an hour or so (I am a slow runner) where there is nothing but the sound of your breathing and your feet hitting the road – that’s a lot of time to think about things, things like “Why am I where I am? ”.

I love my job. If I had to do my life over again, I would choose Ophthalmology every time – I love the way a simple surgery like cataract surgery restores vision and quality of life, I love how visual the specialty is – most of the time we can literally see what is wrong with the eye. I don’t know if the eyes are the window to the soul – I can’t tell if you’re a good or bad person just from my examination alone (although one of our professors can tell which side you sleep on based on how the inflammatory cells have settled in your eye), but sometimes in the midst of a busy clinic, I get a rare glimpse into a stranger’s life, into their emotions, their struggle and their desires – like when my diabetic patient confessed her struggles with eating on time while working as a security officer, or when another patient confided that his son goes on trial tomorrow, and may go to jail. These glimpses are precious and remind me that it is a privilege to be able to do what we do, to meet strangers and touch their lives and hear their stories.

Of course, I have had my ups and downs and my moments of self-doubt along the way. To my juniors who are beginning their Residency journey, full of excitement and/or trepidation, or to those who are hitting the halfway mark and struggling to carry on (I remember the pre-MMed days very clearly) – take heart. Take it from a senior, things get better. Even now as I am entering the pre-exit phase and it feels like I have been studying forever and good sleep and leisure activities are distant memories – this half-marathon experience has taught me that even this difficult phase will be over eventually. We just need to remember why we began this journey, have faith and keep on running.

“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”

— Dean Karnazes