The Long Road: Overcoming Medical School challenges

By: Elizabeth McKinnon

There are unfortunate scenarios in life that are designed to challenge us. We can go through physical challenges (Tae-Bo, I’m looking at you), emotional challenges, and even ones that make you scratch your head and think about your place in the world that you’re ready to burst at the seams. But we are put through these tests for a reason, even if they are downright unpleasant or scary. If not for the trivial trials, how well will we be prepared when the band plays our number and it’s time to shine?

Growing up, I played piano and sang in a multitude of children’s choirs for school and for church. My mother is a talented, professional performer and she did her best to teach me how to have a stage presence and an ear for music. I followed choir into my college years, and then after graduation I took guitar lessons, often satisfying a lifelong desire to learn how to write and play songs -Christmas songs at a string of nursing homes in southern Florida where I grew up. I had the privilege of serving as the Soprano section leader, a position I had asked for from my choir director because I love to organize and instruct.

It may sound like an important promotion that comes with admiration, popularity and perks of getting the solos, but I was neither admired nor popular – nor getting the solos. In fact, the choir director, a self-described lazy hippie with the memory span of a goldfish, called me by the wrong name on a regular basis. One time he even added my actual first name to the last name of a cute Tenor for which I had the blushes. It was terribly embarrassing and any 17-year old who was trying hard to fit in would have been rocked – but I put up with it because I loved to sing, and the director wasn’t going anywhere before my graduation. I dealt with the constant feeling of being ignored for solos I rightfully deserved and tried to smile whenever I was re-christened Patricia or Becky or Samantha.

For what it was worth, I was still singing regardless of if I was in the back or the foreground of the group.

On a fateful December day, the choir had just finished a long morning gig at a nursing home and we needed to take a break for lunch. Our charter bus was jam-packed with girls in their pleated uniform skirts and the boys adjusting their red and green bow ties. Someone was kind enough to bring drum sticks and keep time on the back of my headrest while everyone prattled about. I, of course, was trying to absorb myself into a new book, but ended up daydreaming about getting to dry land before I made a human popsicle out of the drummer behind me. Our large bus pulled in to a CiCi’s Pizza and everyone cheered. We ate handsomely, and for cheap. After lunch, I ducked into the bathroom to call my mom. Thinking back, I really should have gone outside to make the call.  It was in the mid-60s that day and for South Florida that might as well be the frozen tundra. I forget what my mother and talked about but we spoke for ten minutes. I was probably telling her all about the girl who got to sing the solo this year (she was already accepted to an opera program in college and the choir director was obsessed with her) and that’s why I had to once again be in the background on my favorite Christmas carol. My mother allayed my lamentations in a supportive and encouraging way, and then we hung up. I walked out of the bathroom and I was shocked at what I saw-  or rather, what I did not see.

My bus, my classmates, and my choir director…we’re gone. I zoned out for a few moments trying to process the situation. Did I really just get left behind on a field trip? Was I suddenly living in a John Hughes movie? I could just see the headline in the morning paper: “Area Soprano Section Leader Abandoned at Local CiCi’s Pizza”. It was incomprehensible that in the span of ten minutes, a large group of people left a restaurant and boarded a bus and not a single one of them had the wherewithal to ask “Where’s Liz?” before taking their seats and resuming the chatter and mayhem. Not a single one of them. The girls I relentlessly practiced with and taught music pieces to didn’t ask where I was. The senior girls in my own class whom I had sat with for 4 years didn’t ask where I was. And the cute Tenor whom I loved from afar, to my dismay, didn’t ask where I was either. Whereas before I felt like no one cared about me, now I knew it for an absolute fact. I stood outside in the chilly air and stared out at the rest of the suburban outlet stores and restaurants that peppered the neighborhood.

I considered my options at this point because the chances were high that the bus already got on the highway and they were long gone towards Miami. I thought about calling the school and getting them involved. I also toyed with the idea of calling the evening news so that maybe this time my forgetful wad of a choir director would remember my damn name for once. I racked my brain for what to do next but I fought within my mind how this could have happened. I wondered if I was entirely to blame and going to be in severe trouble. Or would the choir director get in trouble for leaving a student behind. It was all so stupid and this could have been avoided with a simple headcount or attendance sheet of some kind.

As far as safety was concerned, I wasn’t in any danger. We were far from the high school but I was actually only a few busy streets down from my house. I probably could have walked home within an hour. But I had one other idea before I gave in to the notion that I was doomed to spend my afternoon walking home. Medical School Challenges

I searched through my phone and found only one person whose number I had. Her name was Angie and we had exchanged numbers only days before. I thought this to be a kind of kismet and so I dialed her number.

She picked up and sounded surprised to hear from me. When I told her what had happened, she audibly gasped and started yelling on the bus, “We forgot Liz!”

And then I heard a long pause, as if everyone on the bus had stopped what they were doing and in unison had replied, “Who?”

“You know! Short little soprano Liz?” she yelled again. I realized that in order to be fully recognized by the people I called my choirmates, I had been reduced to physical attributes and section. Those doofuses not only left me at a restaurant, but it appeared that they didn’t even remember me. I could write a whole book about the cruel things that were done to me as a kid, but this was by far one of the lowest moments of my life.

The bus was promptly turned around and they came to get me. It took 45 minutes. I walked onto the bus in silence while everyone came up to me and apologized. It was nice to be talked to, but it was all very sensationalized and no one was actually sorry.

My eyes burned as the choir director patted me on the head with condescension and half-heartedly apologized, oblivious to the fact that if I didn’t have Angie’s number and I had to call the school, he would have definitely lost his job. We were late to our gig, but I put on my happy face and sang amongst the colleagues like nothing transpired. In the ten years that followed this remarkable yet needless incident, I have tried my best to be the type of person who cannot be forgotten. While I can’t do anything about my height, I turned inwardly to what I lacked and began a long, reflective journey of how I could become a better friend and a more outgoing and engaging person. Since then, I’ve made friends all over the United States and the world, and I’ve published my stories for the whole world to read. And for that I am blessed because I’ve never been happier than when I can feel like everyone around me is having a good time and feels included and welcome, even if the crowd is big and you’re the smallest one there.

I’ve worked tirelessly to establish myself from serious college student to driven medical student to residency applicant. On the heels of Match Day, a time when there is so much uncertainty and at times utter panic, I can’t help but think back to the time I got left at the CiCi’s pizza. What I learned from the ordeal is that the feeling of being lost and alone in the world transcends many different situations, and it’s a feeling that cannot be easily rectified by calling someone on your bus. If you work to make yourself heard, you will not fall into the background. Make every attempt to be acknowledged if something on the line means enough to you. No one wants to be forgotten, especially if you’re one of thousands of residency applicants all vying for your place in the vast and bountiful field of medicine.

This long year of applications and interviews make you feel like a face in the crowd, but you have made yourself known and you will be bear the fruit of your hard work. We will move on from the feeling of being just another person in the crowd and start the careers to which we aspire.

Over and over again, I tell myself that there is a place for me in medicine. I will not be forgotten. I keep my chin up knowing that in a few short days, my career and my life will change forever. I uphold the hope that I’ll become a physician and have a fulfilling life. I extend these feelings to my fellow applicants, who stand side by side as we move into the final stages of our undergraduate medical education. May we as a group of colleagues realize our dreams and bask in our shining moment.




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Elizabeth McKinnon

Elizabeth McKinnon

A lifelong lover of books and the stage, Elizabeth set out to write her first book in college and her second one while she was working as a medical assistant at a dermatologist's office. In her spare time, she writes plays and short stories and enjoys sharing them with friends and family. She plans to pursue a writing career in medical fiction and is currently working on her third book. Elizabeth is a Pathology Resident at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Elizabeth McKinnon

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