Learning this Language

By Allison Munn, MD candidate 2019


I used to be an English Language teacher.

Now I wake up in a rush, postponing hair-washings one extra day, smelling the milk and pretending to ignore the carton date, hurrying out the door with a quick heartfelt kiss to my husband and an armful of things I plan to stuff into my bag on the way. I’m a medical student now.

* * *

In my previous life I stood before a classroom of university students, confident, assertive. Now, depending on the day and my mood or level of sleep, I might shrink and stay small, quiet. Why, I ask myself? I’m not sure – but it becomes my new norm. Do I think I shouldn’t be here? No, that’s not it. I’m just too tired some days to learn this new language and the rules of this foreign culture.

I find myself worrying the level of adulthood I claimed for myself in my teacher days is regressing… I’m striving to return to that self, but this time facing different obstacles, ones that require interpreting before tackling. Help would be good, I think, but I don’t know where to look and I’m afraid to ask – is that culturally appropriate here? It seems everyone does things on his or her own, so I try. But as I try, I start to feel less mature, more on edge, like a teenager, sometimes a child. I wish I’d asked.

* * *

Goodness gracious, this lady needs guidance, perhaps they say to themselves, as they look at my dark under eyes, listening to my jumbled speech and struggling to follow my circuitous thoughts. Is the feeling of inadequacy plastered across my face? My husband tells me my face says everything, so I’m guessing it is. This time my face tells them what I need.

* * *

I want to know what I want to do. I’m interested in Dr. A’s field, so I shadow her, Division Chief of her specialty. She’s friendly but completely intimidating, a total powerhouse and everything I would love to be if I could. She’s casual and joking, but has high expectations. I’m not ready to navigate that landscape, and I shrink. When I run into her later, I get tongue-tied and feel much more inept than I actually am. I should have handled this differently, I think.

* * *

In a proactive moment of determination, I contact Dr. B, the surgeon I haven’t met but would like to meet, to talk about research, which I haven’t really done but would like to learn to do. I think I need to open with an apology – I don’t have much experience…to let her know not to expect too much of me. I anticipate her to be hard, to exude that feeling of constant evaluation because she’s the surgeon and I’m the student. But she surprises me – she’s relaxed, approachable. She gives me two projects and shows me how to get started. I leave thinking I might actually be able to do this thing called “research”…

She checks in, following my projects, making edits to my paper. Each time we meet I feel more comfortable and start to ask her other questions about medicine and life. I feel like she really wants to teach me, and that feeling is invaluable.

* * *

I join a Women’s Leadership group. There I meet Dr. C, a NICU physician and the group leader. Our first group meeting changes things for me – I am a Woman in Medicine. Why has no one told me this before?! Told me that it would be difficult? More importantly, that it is valuable??

She is welcoming and supportive, and yet again I find myself jumbled, like I’m re-learning this language for the first time. Despite her relaxed demeanor, I still feel like the student – I want to just be a person, but I can’t shake the hierarchy ingrained in me. I watch her wear exhaustion with grace, in awe of her ability to juggle 24-hour shifts with her vision to change the system and empower women, and embrace creativity, and oh, personal wellness – she works on that, too. That kind of balance and energy seems unattainable to me, and yet at the same time, is completely inspiring.

When I share my idea, I expect to see a look on her face that says I’m silly for thinking I could do this. She takes me seriously, she takes notes, she helps me plan. I still feel jumbled, but now also justified and supported.

She connects me with her own mentor, Dr. D, who I begin to consider one of mine as well. She is quick to help, support, laugh. I mentally note the qualities she radiates, ones I hope to have one day. I think how lucky her patients are, to have a physician who can treat and care and be a real person with them all at once. Together, I sit with them and absorb the energy of empowered women physicians who have maintained a sense of self. I didn’t think that was possible, but apparently it is, if you try.

* * *

I’m about to start rotations and feel lost in yet another foreign territory. I follow Dr. E on rounds one day. This is the first time we’ve met, but I immediately feel she is a good teacher – her voice and mannerisms are all kindness and support and she knows her stuff. She gives me advice. “Always carry food with you!!!” How does she know the questions I’m too embarrassed to ask?? The next day, I go to the store to stock up on granola bars.

* * *

I’m still making mistakes, but I’m feeling more confident and whole these days. I’m learning to ask, to demand more of myself and of this no-longer-unfamiliar system that chips at my exterior, testing if I can withstand this climate. My eyes are adjusting to see stoic faces as weathered guides, appreciating the challenges and struggles of empowered women before me who have made the journey and now extend an open hand.

I, too, look back at my steps thus far. I think about the women that continue to guide me. With their help, I am finding my way.

And maybe one day, when I am so fluent in this language I’m dreaming in it, I can help someone like me.

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